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Monday, March 31, 2014

Margaret Little, Sylvain Bergeron, Doulce Memoire

Improvisation flourished in 16th and 17th century Europe. For small combinations of instruments such the viola da gamba and the archlute there were practices involving improvising over a harmonic-bass line (rather similar to "playing on changes" in jazz), or taking a well-known melody and subjecting it to embellishments, playing with notes surrounding the long note at hand or breaking that note into a series of shorter notes, then doing the same with the next long note, etc. There were also practices involving transforming a four-part madrigal into a single very embellished line.

There were pieces written out back then in various manners to demonstrate the techniques involved. Margaret Little, on the viola da gamba, and Sylvain Bergeron, on the archlute, present us with a fascinating program of such demonstrations on their album Doulce Memoire (ATMA Classique 2685).

There are 17 such works in all, based on popular madrigals and other melodic-harmonic lines then current. These are put together by composers not well known today, except for the ubiquitous "Anonymous". Otherwise there is John Banister, Diego Ortiz, and an assortment of others. What of course matters is that the anthology spells out and demonstrates beautifully the practices current at the time.

Little and Bergeron are eminently proficient artists who bring us this music with all the grace and verve of the era.

You must hear the music and read the helpful liners to fully grasp the revelatory nature of the project. Since we do not yet possess a time machine, this is the next best thing to uncover music that existed in the immediacy of the live moment.

Highly recommended.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Symfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Pablo Heras-Casado, Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 2 "Lobgesang"

Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 "Italian" generally garners the lion's share of attention among his five. Admittedly it is irresistible in its charm and brio, but his other works in the medium deserve more attention than they sometimes get. His Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) has an epic quality, for example, unmatched for its choral drama.

The Symfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Pablo Heras-Casado gives the symphony a new recorded performance (Harmonia Mundi 902151) which is up for examination today.

Three brief but invigorating movements introduce the final, much longer section of the work, which is in the form of a cantata for soloists, full chorus and orchestra.

The choral movements have the lift of a Bach cantata with the longer form of Mendelssohnian romanticism. Hearing it all this well performed with modern digital staging is a bit of a revelation.

It comes across as a work much more worthy of our attention than I certainly have thought over the years. This is an exemplary performance of music that soars in the hands of Heras-Casado. A sleeper it may have been for more than 150 years. It has awoken and we are all the better for it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Smoke & Mirrors, Vanish

From the percussion group Smoke & Mirrors comes Vanish (Yarlung 15195) and their program of nine quite varied compositions and arrangements. In many ways this album is an exemplar of what has been happening on the edges of modernism-into-postmodernism. The music, mostly in a tonal vein, sports some especially excellent mallet work, but all members of the percussion family are represented.

The nine works include those by Avner Dorman, Diego Schissi, Ernest Toch, Derek Tywoniuk, Sergei Rachmaninov, Mark Appelbaum, Alejandro Vinao and Toru Takemitsu.

The Takemitsu piece is a full-blown tone poem for five percussion soloists and symphony orchestra, with the participation of the Colburn Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz. It is a beautiful later work by the Japanese master filled with orchestral color and varied percussion solos and cadenzas.

The two brief Rachmaninov works are reworkings of his music for the Orthodox Church, arranged for marimba ensemble. They sound lovely and surprisingly suited sonorously for such treatment.

Beyond that there is a wealth of moods and modes, from Dorman's bluesy-eastern work for marimbas, Schissi's tonal-modern full ensemble rhapsody, Tywoniuk's pomo work of bell-like color and rock undertones, and so forth.

All is well played and retains listener interest through the wide range of works and the varied sound worlds presented. It is highly engaging and rather delightful. Recommended for those percussion afficianados out there and for those who like rhythmic tonal music that speaks to us today.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rhys Chatham, Harmonie du soir

Placing Rhys Chatham's recent album Harmonie du soir (Northern Spy) in the modern-classical blog is deliberately provocative. It could easily go into the guitar blog as "avant rock" and nobody would give it a second thought. I put it here to underscore the idea that, increasingly, there are things being done with rock instrumentation--here multiple guitars, electric bass and drums to start with--that veer rather clearly in the direction of new music classical. Minimalism in the trance zone has had a natural affinity with certain "tribal" kinds of rock via the insistent repetition of motifs. Long jams in classic-period rock and beyond often take on a similar form that strives for a mesmerizing effect. Similarly some of Fripp and Eno's work well belongs in a space between rock and minimal classic and has trance inclinations in a more soundscaped, more nuanced manner than a typical rock band jam. There have been others on either side of the various divides.

The Rhys Chatham album on the title piece articulates steady rock rhythms on the drums, constantly drone-like rhythmic guitar chords (for six guitars) and appropriate bass lines to give the listener the direct experience of rock. The music stays for long periods in these zones with a singularity that takes it into minimalism proper.

"Harmonie de Pontarlier", the second piece, favors a large brass-wind ensemble, first with a rhythm accompaniment and recurring brass figurations, then with held notes and relative stasis, and further along then with the held-note drone plus rhythm and recurring wind figurations. It goes from there to another series of more active wind and brass motives that move forward with overlapping repetitions that have clear minimalist underpinnings, reminding at times of other strictly classic minimal works but originally so.

The shorter closer "Drastic Classicism Revisited" has a punk-rock feel with an uptempo rhythm on drums, a manic, constant singular barrage of one thrash chord and variants for four guitars, and the addition of "numerous trumpets" towards the end, the latter all but unidentifiable in the mayhem.

So we get three pieces, each distinctive and effectively original. For those who make a habit of listening to various forms of harder rock this album will seem familiar, yet with its minimalist insistency rather untoward. The new music listener may find the chaotic, hard-driving portions of the music either invigorating or excruciating, depending on mood and temperament.

Either camp will be called upon to redefine expectations, because by partaking of both genres in a boldly conflationary way Rhys Chatham has created music that intrigues, exhilarates and/or exasperates. It needs to be heard in any event. I may not be sure where to file this one but I am sure in has importance and originality.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Joana Sá, Elogio da Desordem (In Praise of Disorder)

This columnist has had the pleasure of covering the music of Joana Sá before. Today, another: Elogio da Desordem (In Praise of Disorder) (Shhpuma 006). It is subtitled "Interior monologue for semi-prepared piano, bells, sirens, voices and...". And that it is. Ms. Sá is a growingly important presence on the Portuguese avant landscape. She makes music that has the momentum and spontaneity of improvised new music, yet there is a composed structural element that continually frames the music and evokes interrelated sound worlds that work together to inscribe a particular poetic state onto the moment.

It is especially true of the suite of movements contained in the present recording. Through use of a piano whose strings have been prepared with various objects within a particular range of notes, through the use of sirens and bells that punctuate the affect of certain passages with the sound of a symbolic sort of alarum, through various amplified noises ("noise boxes") (which come off as electronics, as that they are), through bowing and other unusual ways of sounding the piano and the appearance of a toy piano and a harmonium at times, through periodic recitation (by Rosinda Costa) of texts by Goncalo M. Tavares, a set of special moods are created, filled with vivid sound color and pianistic avant-virtuosity.

Joana's music has a flow to it that after hearing a few times seems unique but somehow appropriate. The music has a natural quality that is ultra-modernistic nonetheless. What strikes me in her music, especially here, is the mastery of avant techniques harnessed to a sureness of purpose that brings together aspects of the classical avant and the free-improvisatory schools. All clearly and movingly holds together as compositional.

I am especially impressed with how this music after several hearings continually stimulates the hearer's imagination with a master sound-painter's expert touch and larger vision. Nothing sounds random and yet there is continuous sound-invention without much at all in the way of repetition.

In Praise of Disorder has a monumental elocutionary eloquence to it that puts it on rarified turf. Anyone with an interest in the avant garde today should listen closely.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Xenia Pestova, Shadow Piano, Music for Piano, Toy Piano & Electronics

In pop music today the unadorned acoustic piano is a rarity. Synthesized and sampling keyboards are the norm. In modern classical we have those things sometimes, surely, but we also have the conventional grand piano subjected to modifications--items placed on or between the keys, novel ways of sounding the strings, etc. There is also the piano played live and subjected to electronic processing or accompanied by an electronic music score. The latter general development had its most notable first masterpiece in Stockhausen's "Mantra" for two pianos and live electronics. Cage's prepared piano pieces and Cowell's piano works for sounding the strings inside the piano were pioneering 20th century examples of organically modified piano sounds. Then also of course there was John Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano".

All of the works mentioned above established a legacy. The sound of the piano and keyboard in general continues to evolve today on these lines. Today we have an album of Shadow Piano: Music for Piano/Toy Piano & Electronics by Xenia Pestova (Innova 874) which brings us into the 21st century with works by Scott Wilson, Lou Bunk, Andrew Lewis, Derek Hurst, John Young and Katharine Norman.

Xenia Pestova has the sense of adventure, sensitivity to the techniques and stylistic particularities of high modernism and the poetic soul to bring this music to fruition in the best ways, and she does.

What's remarkable about the program is how the individualities of each composer and her/his works have common ground so that the entire program flows together as one unified statement. The electronics and attention to the toy piano in addition to a grand piano extend the sonority and color to an almost chamber orchestral mass and distinctness at times. Yet the notes themselves have measured importance to the whole as well, so it isn't just a matter of timbre.

The fact that Xenia has first taken on some of Cage and Stockhausen's masterworks mentioned above (for Naxos records) brings her well prepared for these new pieces. But then she seems to be especially suited temperamentally to the extended tonal, rhythmic and color spectrum of new music for piano in any event.

The electronic parts are closely aligned to the piano sounds and generally offer not just a color but a structural element in the course of most of the works heard here.

Every composer comes through with an important and interesting contribution. It no doubt helped that they are all friends of hers, as she mentioned in the liners, and so perhaps were especially attuned to the specifics of her genuine talent and interpretive prowess.

In the end what matters is the results. This is one of the most integral and rewarding programs of new music for keys and electronics I have heard. It will affirm the centrality of the colored abstractions of high modern music today for all who have ears to hear it.

Highly recommended.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Voice of the Turtle Dove, Sheppard, Davy, Mundy, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

The unfolding events which made a martyr out of Thomas More and in no way caused his Utopia to disappear but rather to be widely read over the centuries did not correspond to the fate of the music of some of the pre-Reformation English composers. Much of their music sank into obscurity for centuries, sadly.

The Sixteen give us an enchanting look at three such composers in The Voice of the Turtle Dove (CORO 16119). Harry Christophers takes his customary place as director-conductor as they wend their way through eight works by the forgotten masters Richard Davy, John Sheppard, and William Mundy.

The Sixteen have addressed this period before in a good number of recordings. It was what brought them to notice in the early days of their existence and the present set shows they have by no means exhausted the repertoire. Each of the three composer get notable representation with a longer and several (sometimes interrelated) shorter works, some secular, mostly sacred, all ravishingly performed as well-crafted examples of English brilliance. We get antiphons, responsories, in all a memorable exploration of period counterpoint offering endlessly beautiful labyrinths of sound.

I am a novice of this period of English choral music. One need not be an expert to recognize the beauty of the works and luxuriate in their ravishing execution by the Sixteen. This is a real winner.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Grainne Mulvey, Akanos

There are some present-day composers one takes to almost naturally, depending on one's background and listening habits. I found such a composer in Grainne Mulvey, an Irish practitioner of the sonic arts of high modernism. She has a new album out, an all-Mulvey program named Akanos (Navona 5943) after the opening orchestral work featured on the disk.

The press sheet accompanying the release tells us that hers in a music of opposites, and you can see how that works in the pieces for live performers and electronic sound. Otherwise hers is a music of the epic gesture, high level sound color essays, a music at once post-Xenakis-ian and post-Berio-ian in direction.

"Akanos" starts things off with a rousingly gigantic dissonance, eight minutes of sheer dash, played well by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra.

From there we hear five works for a live instrumentalist and electronics, involving two for flute, two for soprano, one for cello plus a ten-minute work ("Steel Grey Splinters") that makes good use of unusual timbres on the piano.

What impresses about the electronic-live works is the finely attuned way the electronics complement the live part and vice versa. "Shifting Colours" for example brings to the electronics manipulated flute and breathy sounds that act as a kind of specially sonic orchestra to the flute's solo part.

Ms. Mulvey gives you fully developed electronic scores in the more through-composed classic avant sense. The sounds have flow and structure, in other words.

I would love to hear more of her orchestral works in particular, since "Akanos" is a wonderful kind of teaser for what I hope is a large body of works. The electronics-performer pieces are satisfying in themselves, however, so there is a good bit of her music to digest and appreciate.You don't feel that there's anything missing. She has style and dramatic power, of that there is no doubt.

Thoroughly recommended for those who respond to well-wrought avant classical.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nils Bultmann, Troubadour Blue

Violist, improviser and composer Nils Bultmann presents us with a new kind of quasi-Americana folkish modernism on his album of compositions and improvisations, Troubadour Blue (Innova 851). He comes across as a musical mind intent on going its own way, in this case through four sets of pieces that work their crafted structures into your musical mind with an artless charm that in part disguises a very artful presence.

"Ten Viola Duets" teams Bultmann with fellow violist Hank Dutt in a directly engaging suite that is built out of figures and motives Nils has improvised over the years with friends. There is a spontaneous feel to these segments that wind contrapuntally around themselves in a way that reminds slightly of Bartok's pieces in this vein in their folk-yet-modern approach, yet are filled with Bultmann's own vision and his sophisticated revamping of Americana. Don't expect a hoe-down, but do expect to feel the presence of roots and modernist extensions.

"From the Depths" gives us four improvisations for viola (Nils) and Stephen Kent on the didjeridu. The unexpected juxtaposition of instruments seems perfectly logical in the sense that generally the didjeridu role is that of a basso continuo in its rhythmic line weaving while Nils flows and flies overtop with spontaneous melodic invention, double stops and general adventure. This is fascinating to hear and situates the through-composed duets for two violas in terms of how both kinds of musical events relate to one another, how Bultmann has his own way in what and how he constructs it all. That becomes clear as you hear the two works one after the other.

From there we have a beautifully concerted folk-art solo for the viola entitled "Lucid". It is partly improvised, partly precomposed but both cadenza-like and earthy.

The final work, "Suite for Solo Cello" brings Parry Karp's fine playing into Bultmann's orbit via a five-part work that has archaic folk roots in its multiple-stops yet also pays homage to Bach's wonderful works for solo cello.

The work shows once again how Bultmann dwells on two plains and does so with great dexterity and even brilliance, namely the earthy folk and the high art heavens. Nils Bultmann shows us in somewhat less than an hour why he is one of a kind. And he does it all in a way that produces music that engages in a thoroughly rooted yet thoroughly contemporary way. Bravo!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lutoslawski, Works for Piano Solo, Veronique Briel

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) wrote some very engaging piano music in the formative years of his career. I am not quite sure, honestly, of what solo music he wrote for the instrument after 1968 (because I have not heard any of it) but we do have a very nice volume by Veronique Briel, Works for Solo Piano (Dux 0967), that covers convincingly the period 1934-1968.

The "Piano Sonata" (1934) and early-middle works have a distinct impressionist feel. They are no less delightful for it. As his music progresses we find the influence of Polish folk elements, at first alongside an impressionist palette, later in a more straightforward context--all this can be heard beginning with the "Folk Melodies", 12 short segments, from 1945.

"Bucolics", "2 Studies", "3 Pieces for the Young," and the 1968 "Invention" bring us closer to the later modern style of the composer, with some impressive music and a glimpse of the brilliance of his mature period.

Other than the Sonata, these were presumably not meant to be ambitious in some paradigmatic sense. Nonetheless Ms. Briel plays them with great heart and they have a good deal of charm, very pianistic and memorable.

The experience may not do justice to the full impact of Lutoslawski as an important figure on the modern scene. All the same this is a delightful program, perfect for the spring inside of all of us waiting to bloom.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Marmarai, Oriental Contemporary, Asasello Quartet

Sometimes the "what" of a recording gives us something so unusual it needs explaining before even thinking about "how (it sounds)". We do have that today with Marmarai, Oriental Contemporary (Kunst Stiftung NRW Deutschlandfunk 14298). The disk contains three string quartets and one string trio from composers both European and Eastern: Matthias Pintscher (b. 1971) from Germany, Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907–1991) and Ataç Sezer (b. 1979) from Turkey.

The Asasello Quartet takes on these works with verve. All of the examples share in common a modern approach.

Ahmed Adnan Saygun's String Quartet No. 1 (1947) is both modern and in tonality and melody makes very overt and effective use of Turkish minor modes and pentatonicism with passages that blur into modern quasi-dissonance. The liner notes on the disk spell out his formative status as the father of modern Turkish classical, Turkey's Sibelius, so to speak. The music gives us plenty to appreciate. It is a piece that perhaps could be thought of as paradigmatic to an eastern nationalist-modernist approach

Ataç Sezer's two works, "Subject, String Quartet" (2008), and "Flow, String Trio" (2010) show the full impact of contemporary string techniques and sound color/multilayered compositional outlooks of the high modern avant garde of the last half of the 20th century. A close listen will discern some overtly Turkish elements, but there is in ultimate effect more of an internationalist approach than that of Saygun.

Seemingly the odd-man-out in this program is Matthias Pintscher. But he taught Sezer composition for a time and stylistically he parallels the Turkish composer in the multi-layered quality of his work. "Study IV for Treatise on the Veil, String Quartet" (2009) is one of four of his works to address the Cy Twombly painting by that name. It is a well crafted work that fits right into the program.

In the end this is a disk that explores three worthy and rather unknown composers with excellent performances of their chamber works. It is for the musical explorer more than the modernist beginner, but also affords an excellent window onto two important Turkish composers.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Andrzej Panufnik, Sfere, Symphonic Works, Vol. 7

Adrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), Polish modernist of distinction, has had some distribution of his music here in the States in the past, but he hasn't been quite at the level where, for example, the Classical section of the old Tower Records store in the Village (Greenwich) would have put a new release in a showcase spot about the racks. As can be the case, his relative unfamiliarity has nothing to do with his stature as a composer. He is deserving of our listening minds.

I've covered his music here before, notably a review on November 13, 2012 of Vol. 5 of the series focused on today. We are up to Volume 7 of his collected orchestral works, titled Sfere (CPO 777 686-2) in reference to the 30-minute "Sinfonia di Sfere, Symphony No. 5", which forms the centerpiece of this volume.

I have not heard the other volumes, but whatever they contain, Vol. 7 is most certainly no afterthought. With the 5th Symphony, the Bassoon Concerto and two shorter works, it contains music of high interest and merit.

Panufnik in this volume impresses as a modernist with expanded near-atonality and a well developed sense of rhythmic drive in the bolder passages--with a nice bit of percussion fireworks in the symphony. His largo-like passages have a solemn beauty and unlike a Prokofiev or a Shostakovich, less of the sarcastic tang and bittersweet qualities you may hear with them. There is a times a well-expressed plaintive feeling. He comes off as an independent musical mind not especially in the orbit of the Eastern European luminaries active in his lifetime. He is more attentive to classical form than, say, Penderecki in his early years, and less strident. He is perhaps closer to Bacewicz in the slower sections, but only in the roughest sense. Sometimes I sense a rather uncanny affinity with Charles Ives in his mysterious, lingering string work. At any rate he has real bite to his music and a sense of monumental form (in the symphony and bassoon concerto at any rate) that is epic in the classic symphonic sense.

The symphony and bassoon concerto are masterful examples that beguile and satisfy. "Love Song" a short work of beauty with mezzo-soprano Sarah van der Kemp, and "Landscape", another fitting closer in a mysterious vein (the only work played here by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the others are performed by the Konzerthausorchester Berlin), are a bit more tonal than the two principal works in this program. In that sense they form an interesting coda to the "main event".

Conductor Lukasz Borowitz knows his Panufnik, it seems, and brings out the broad panorama of sounds with perfect ease and dedication. Bassoonist Michael von Schonermark gives us a nice performance in the concerto.

Panufnik comes across as an original figure on the 20th century modernist scene. I am impressed with this volume and in turn recommend anyone with an interest in new music to hear it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Joseph Klein, Improbable Encounters

Joseph Klein gives us the accumulated creativity of 30 years worth of works in his near-retrospective Improbable Encounters (Innova 873 CD & DVD). The North Texas State University Prof gives us solo works for a vast variety of instruments: bass flute, contrabassoon, percussion, ocarina, glass harmonica, bass saxophone, piccolo, guitar, piano. There are works for recitation and electronics, small ensembles of two guitars, trombonist or bass trombonist, prepared piano or recitation, the latter two ensembles with electronics. And there is one rather lengthy work for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra, "Interior Shadows".

This is later modern music with some wide intervallic leaps, abstracted landscapes, a vivid palette of colors and ambiguous tonality. The first half of the program is for conventional CD, the second for DVD 5:1 sound and generally a performance-performatve view of the works.

The recitation segments stand or fall on the texts at hand. Generally those texts have interest, but some less than others. The solo works and the small chamber ensembles work well, especially the piece for two guitars. The sheer variety of instrumental colors and Maestro Klein's finely considered music for them keeps one's attention. The electronics are generally atmospheric, sometimes environmental. They are mostly present as a backdrop for instrumentalists or recitation and provide texture and color.

"Pathways, Interior Shadows" (the work for soprano sax and chamber orchestra) for its 21 minutes of modernist drama and vivid soundscaping is particularly worth hearing in its own right.

Klein's muse is well served in this set. I can't say all of it is indispensable but those that click do so powerfully. You come away with a good impression of a composer who does not stand still but is ever moving forward. Bravo.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Richard Stoltzman, Resolve, Hindemith, Masterworks for Clarinet

Legendary clarinetist Richard Stoltzman tackles Hindemith masterworks for clarinet? Yes, on Resolve (Navona 5934), a brand-new release that makes perfect sense and comes through with what it promises.

Hindemith was never one to neglect the winds. He wrote sonatas and/or concertos for an amazingly diverse number of soloists. His works for clarinet and various ensembles are especially fine.

Richard Stoltzman gives us state-of-the-art performances of three of those works: the "Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra", the "Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, op. 30", and the "Sonata for Clarinet and Piano". The sonata is particularly delightful, definitive. The other works get excellent consideration.

Each has a special character and a modernist zeal coupled with attention to form that is a hallmark of Hindemith in his mature period. The clarinet parts are far from easy, but most importantly they give a master soloist the chance to bring out the colors inherent in the various registers and dynamic levels. Maestro Stoltzman delivers a beautifully nuanced rendition of all three works. The instrumental partnership/accompaniment has the proper energy and zest in every case: Yehudi Wyner on piano (an extraordinary presence on the sonata, a wonderful composer in his own right); TASHI on the quintet; and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor for the concerto.

In short Stoltzman scores a knock-out here. The versions are distinct enough that they give you singularity even if you already have these works in your collection. If you don't, you should. Either way this is an essential recording!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Carson Cooman, Litany, Music for Organ, Erik Simmons

The album up today is not totally indispensible. Not, that is, unless you are an organ music afficionado. In other words if you don't have any or if you have little organ music in your collection, this is probably not the one to get. Bach, Messiaen, Widor, etc., might be better first choices.

That's because Carson Cooman's Litany, Music for Organ (Divine Art 25116), as played by Erik Simmons on the beautiful Marcussen organ in Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, has the entire organ repertoire presupposed as what it follows, and you might get a bit of that first. On the other hand the music itself can be experienced of course independently and you may not hear how it fits in but would certainly find the listening worth your time.

Carson Cooman lives today, an American composer in his prime. I don't believe I've had the pleasure of hearing his music before but he apparently has orchestral works, etc., and a fair number of recordings out there that one can listen to.

For now it's the organ music that concerns us. The album gives us a generous sampling of 12 compositions both in single and multi-movements. They cover the recent era, from 1999 to 2013.

You can hear in a modern tonal idiom an affinity with the French school of organ composers (Franck through Tournemire, Vierne, etc.) in the symphonic splendor and worked through classicism-cum-romanticism that these composers excelled in over the last 150 years, give or take.

Cooman writes inventive, modern tonal music that follows in the footsteps of such composers, to my ears. There is much to like. The performances and sound leave nothing to be desired. It's all there.

Carson Cooman gives us a body of work here that I hope will continue to grow. He is a bright light that shines for us in this 72-minute program. Organ music fans take note! Recommended.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ayala Asherov, Cycles of the Moon, Chamber Works

In the world of contemporary modern music there have been a burgeoning of categories that we all have applied from time-to-time, "minimalism", "neo-classical", the Darmstadt School, etc. The chamber music of Ayala Asherov, as heard in the recent anthology Cycles of the Moon (Navona 5928), doesn't quite fit any of them. It's certainly not cutting-edge avant garde music. It is tonal without especially fitting into neo-romantic or neo-classical camps. It perhaps has a sort of folk rootishness.

She is a native of Israel and I guess something of those roots come out. But honestly I've been listening without aid of press sheets and liner notes up until now, and it didn't hit me in any obvious sense that there were pronounced tonalities of Israel or Jewishness. The minor mode, a phase here and there possibly, but nothing in a full syntactical sense. Listening with that in mind I do pick up a tad of it. But mostly she writes in a straightforwardly tonal idiom, "neo-tonal" if you will.

That is in no way to detract from the music. It is engaging and I would even say original. There are seven multi-movement works in all, written over a period of the last four years or so. The composer intends them to be accessible, and so they are.

Other than "Cycles of the Moon", which is written for solo viola and string ensemble, these are chamber works of an intimate nature for a small group of players. There is one for solo violin; for flute, bassoon, piano; a song cycle for mezzo-soprano, violin, viola and cello; one for solo clarinet; one for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone and piano; and one for solo flute.

They are inventive, melodic, at times almost pastoral, and generally quite lyrical. I found myself enjoying them increasingly as I listened more than once. Ms. Asherov delivers a most pleasing program here. It's a matter of unassuming simplicity. And that is very refreshing.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Karl Fiorini, Violin Concertos

Ahh, modernism. Those that love it may be a breed apart. Those that have been avant so long it looks like tradition to me, to paraphrase and garble a blues lyric, take it all quite seriously. I do. And it's a fact--once you stretch your ears and musical mind to include all the notes there's no going back. And that is a good thing.

So today we have something "in the tradition" of the not-quite-traditional world of High Modernism. I am speaking about composer Karl Fiorini and his Violin Concertos (Metier 28533), nicely done in a new recording. Who is he? Well he came to this earth in 1979, so that makes him young. He was born in Malta, went to the Royal College of Music, he's apparently composed pretty prodigiously, winning lots of awards and acclaim on the way.

The two Violin Concertos are hallmark works in new music, to my ears. An equally young Emanuel Salvador is the solo violinist for the first and he is quite impressive with all the expressive zeal and stirring dynamic extroversion these works need. The same may be said for the violinist of the 2nd, Marta Magdalena Lelek. Bartosz Zurakowski conducts the Sudecka Philharmonic Orchestra in a masterful way and they come through beautifully.

"Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra" (2006-7) is the first and it has a rather glorious exuberance, a stretched edge-of-tonality demeanor and skillful orchestral-solo construction that puts in somewhere between late Bartok and early Penderecki, to give you some idea of the sound.

"Violin Concerto No. 2" (2011-12) has a thicker texture, more motor insistence and brashness of the best sort. It is rousingly dissonant and powerful.

In both cases the solo violin part has a genuine idiosyncratic, outgoing quality that in the hands of these two virtuosi utterly convinces. The orchestra responds to the soloist with the give-and-take dialog one would expect.

Karl Fiorini gives us two excellent works that seem sure to enter the concerto repertoire. They are majestic, thrilling, ultra-modern and exciting to hear. Molto bravo!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Triade, Visits, Music by Carei Thomas

There are certain basic assumptions you make when you hear certain improvised musics. Jazz of whatever style has a corresponding set of basic forms and lines, depending on the era. Avant guard or free music whether swaying toward the jazz side or more in a "new music" realm has a certain vocabulary that may be transformed but is there in some way. The same can be expected when new music avant classical artists improvise. When classical musicians more in the tonal mainstream improvise, we aren't sure what to expect. First of all because it doesn't happen much. It's rather rare. Second of all it's going to be dependant on what the players agree upon, either tacitly or explicitly.

All that comes into play when you listen to the classical improvisatory piano trio Triade and their recent album Visits (Innova 249).

This is trio that achieves a musically lively confluence by working off a composed set of motives as a springboard. The pianist and informal leader Carei Thomas provides most of the compositional cells. Interestingly he has been involved in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) which is notable for the extraordinarily creative avant jazz the members have produced over the years. Triade doesn't create music that reflects that stylistic universe in any direct sense.

Gary Schulte, violinist in the trio, had been working on improvised classical with Thomas for a while when they came upon cellist Michelle Kinney and found between them a chemistry that they have been exploring ever since.

This is piano trio music that takes the well-established interplay of such a group in composed classical music and seeks to produce spontaneous collective music that has a logic born of the composed bits and builds upon each players considerable contribution to the whole that evolves. The music has at times an almost folk elementality, but otherwise has a modern pomo tonal outlook that engages in its immediacy and charm.

There are 12 pieces on the album; seven by Thomas, three by Schulte and and two by Kinney. The conceptual compositional cells provided by each take full flower in performance here. They are tonally and sometimes harmonically given and/or otherwise improvised structures that sing out in various ways.

Each instrumentalist has become so attuned to the others that the results sound like spontaneous compositions as much as they have the free-wheeling range of improvisations.

In the end we have a program fascinating and rewarding to experience. The trio provides exemplary model examples of what modern tonal classical music can and does sound like when improvised. It is a very impressive achievement that also is very enjoyable to hear. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Michael Hersch, Images from a Closed Ward, The Blair String Quartet

Now that we are in the '10s of this century it is pretty much established that a composer can choose notes vertically and harmonically as she or he please, anything from elemental tonality to sophisticated harmony to atonality, or any combination of the above, though Pierre Boulez famously objects to mixing tonality with its opposite. That need not deter us.

Michael Hersch has taken advantage of the freedom of now to create a 13 movement suite for string quartet, Images from a Closed Ward (Innova 884), a work from 2010 that here showcases the Blair Quartet. The music came to be as a result of Maestro Hersch meeting with American artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) and the affinity Hersch developed with Mazur and his art, which has an overwhelming sadness about it. The first works that began Mazur's climb to attention and appreciation were a group of sketches and lithographs he entitled Closed Ward and Locked Ward, expressionist images of inmates of a mental asylum.

Michael, whom we gladly encountered in his solo piano collection the Sudden Pianist some time ago (see search index box above), has composed 13 movements that create a musical analog to the images. These are people without hope, and the music is wrenchingly sad in corresponding ways to the bleak imagery Mazur so movingly puts before us.

Tempos are mostly quite slow, dirge-like at times. There are strident assertions well beyond perceived tonality and there are quieter, more tender, regretful and a bit more tonal landscapes, both ends capturing the shifting moods of the inmates and Mazur's portrayals.

This is extraordinarily expressive High Modern music, perhaps something like Morton Feldman on an overdose of Belladonna. There is a kind of living horror that just keeps being in the same place, hour-after-hour for a lifetime. That is how the music feels and surely how it is intended.

It is masterful music and the Blair Quartet tackle the extremes of expression with excellent artistry. Surely this is some of the darkest string quartet music to be found. Nevertheless the kind of transcedence that well-composed music contains makes it not just bearable, but rather extraordinary, a music filled with humane compassion as well as despair.

If you are looking for something chipper, this is not it. Those who can stand up to the darkness, or rather the absence of redeeming light will be in for something of excellence. Michael Hersch is a phenomena.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Brian Noyes, Journeys After...

Welsh composer Brian Noyes comes front and center today with two of his orchestral works. Journeys After (Navona 5938) features "Point of Decision" and "Shadows of Memory". Both have to do with peasant-poet John Clare, early 19th century native of Northamptonshire who escaped from a mental institution and went on an 80-mile walk home in search of his imaginary love. I suspect he didn't find her but the entire experience was enshrined in his "Journey Out of Essex".

Noyes takes that experience as the subject matter for the two works we hear. The lengthy "Points of Decision" has a very mysterioso way about it--modern, evocative, on the neo-impressionist side of things in its vivid orchestral color. The shorter "Shadows of Memory" is more turbulent and harmonically stretched. Both works show Noyes as a figure to be reckoned with in the new orchestral sphere.

These are somewhat difficult scores to perform, I'd imagine, and they are given spirited readings that certainly give us a very solid impression of the works. Whether later versions will surpass these I do not know, but hats off to the Moravian Philharmonic under Per Vronsky and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande.

I hope we hear much more from Brian Noyes. In these works he shows himself to be a natural in the orchestral realm. Bravo!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Jerusalem Quartet, Smetana & Janacek String Quartets

Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek wrote marvelous string quartets that simultaneously captured autobiographical elements and also made brilliant use of folk and folk dance elements, all transformed into powerful personal vehicles of pre- and early-modern expression. The Jerusalem Quartet have captured the excitement of the strong rhythmic dynamics, the idiosyncratic elements and the singing qualities of the compositions in a superb manner on their recent three-work disk (Harmonia Mundi 902178).

Included are Smetana's Quartet No. 1 in e minor "From My Life", plus Janacek's Quartet No. 1 "Kreutzer Sonata" and Quartet No. 2 "Intimate Pages".

These are near-ideal performances with virtuoso articulations that capture and bring out the pristine combinations of unforgettable motifs and ethnic brio. The four have drawn a finely detailed portrait of all three quartets to emphasize the salient structural features of the architecture of each movement and colored the sound with a vivid palette that makes a shining eloquence out of it all.

I've enjoyed all three quartets for most of my life and I must say I favor this Jerusalem Quartet version as at or near the top of versions I've heard. They do great justice to the demands and soaring heights that all three works summon.

If you don't have these quartets you are in for much enjoyment. Jerusalem's way with the Janacek is worth exploring even if you have other versions. In short, a triumph, a glowing beacon to guide us ahead! Don't miss this one.