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Monday, June 30, 2014

Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini, Inventio

There are those albums that have the "beyond category" feel to them. The one up today has that in very interesting ways. Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini and their Inventio (ECM B0020542-02) have a confidence born of prowess, a rapport and a commitment to a direction--two excellent musicians who know where they are going, and then proceed to go there.

Matinier plays the accordion; Ambrosini plays the nyckelharpa, a bowed string instrument related to the violin, ordinarily played in Swedish folk settings. Ambrosini has mastered the instrument for a different genre. We have a program of new settings of baroque classics and quasi-Eurofolk, quasi-classic modern compositions by Matinier and/or Ambrosini.

These are excellent players in duo since 2008. They have an uncanny togetherness. Tackling Bach inventions, a movement from Biber's "Rosary" Sonatas, and something by Pergolesi they manage to sound both baroque, pre-baroque, folkish and modern all at once. Their own compositions pull us to the present but bring along all those elements at the same time. Matinier has exceptional facility on the accordion that Ambrosini complements and magnifies in his own way.

Matinier and Ambrosini revel in and excel at producing a sensuously vibrant sound. They swell together in volume as expression demands, create uncanny blends and make music of a striking kind--something completely right for Manfred Eicher's sonic treatment. It all sounds just great.

The overall effect is one of a refreshing balm, a rejuvenation of a sense of discovery. Such imaginative virtuoso playing does not come by often, not on these very originally personal terms.

A delight for your ears! Something to hear when you are weary of the same old options. Recommended.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Per Nørgård, Symphonies 1 & 8, Vienna Philharmonic, Sakari Oramo

The present-day active symphonists? I mean composers who devote themselves to a symphonic output--who write real symphonies? Perhaps there are less of them than there used to be. I am not one at this point to do a systematic survey of the recorded output of living composers and statistically compare the number of symphonies per se with those getting a hearing in 1960. It is an impression only.

Then of course there is the issue of quality. The survey is a daunting task that breaks down once your own evaluation has to come into play--because you cannot hear everything! And then your evaluation has a subjective component. That is perhaps the subject of a book. There is no question that orchestral writing continues on as always, but there may be less of the formal symphony coming to us. No matter.

So never mind. One thing I can say this morning. Per Nørgård, living Danish composer, most certainly is a symphonist, one of real stature. You can hear it in the recording just out of his first and current last symphonies, Symphonies 1 & 8 (Da Capo 6.220574), as recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic under Sakari Oramo. Surprisingly enough this is the first recording of the Vienna Philharmonic doing Nordic new music. They picked music we should hear and they do a very good job with it.

The first symphony (1953-55 rev. 1956) is in a somewhat romantic vein, Sibelius-like in its orchestrational brilliance. The 8th (2010-11) is more modernistic, fractalized and abstracted. This is the premier recording of the latter work and it is good to hear.

I suppose you could say comparing the two symphonies has an apples and oranges feel to it. They are both Per Nørgård-like, certainly. But I have not gotten my mental musical senses around what that is, precisely. And some of that is deliberate. Per Nørgård devised each symphony as something with its own distinct personality, as he remarks in the liners to this disk. Indeed the first and eighth do not seem of the same exact family, cousins more than siblings. Of course they show a change and a growth in the composer's style. The 8th belongs to 2010 as the 1st does the early fifties I suppose. Surely the styles exhibited here felt right to Nørgård when he sat down and wrote the music. And they still sound right, just different.

In common is a sort of musical panorama that cannot be easily put into words but has something Nordic about it. That is, each has a descriptive non-verbal elegance, an eloquence, a set of musical colors combined and juxtaposed skillfully and even brilliantly into structures of sound.

All of this should indicate to you that Per Nørgård's music is something I am coming to know only gradually. These two symphonies continue me on that tone-voyage of discovery. Both the more romantic and the more modern examples set forth on on this disk convince me that he belongs among the important symphonists of our time. The music holds up under intensive scrutiny. As charming and dazzlingly dramatic as the first is, the eighth is more on the contrasting expressive-modern-cubistic whole-in-significant-parts side of possibilities. Just for the premier of the 8th alone this is an important disk. The inclusion of the 1st gives you a wide perspective on the composer. And the performances are committed and sonically grand.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Muzio Clementi, Sonatas for Piano and Violin, Anfossi, Vassilev

If you took classical piano lessons for any length of time, like I did, you invariably came across one or more Sonatinas by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832). I certainly enjoyed the one I was assigned, and found to my delight that Satie had parodied it in a piece of his own, but at the time I wasn't aware of how prolific and worthwhile his more advanced work was--for the piano alone he wrote more than 100 sonatas. He was the pioneer for realizing in composition the complex sonorities available to the pianist. And if he was overshadowed in part by Mozart and later by Beethoven, it was more in terms of stylistic development than in the quality of the music itself, at least as far as the chamber works were concerned.

Today's disk gives us a picture of the breadth of Clementi's music via a nice selection of his Sonatas for Piano and Violin (Newton Classics 8802110), ably played by Massimo Anfossi at the piano and Mario Vassilev on the violin.

It's no mistake that these works list the piano before the violin in their titles. The piano part is by far the more brilliantly conceived. The violin takes a structurally important role, plays a fundamental part in the thematic unravelling of each movement. But the piano takes on a more virtuoso, elaborated function in these duets.

Once you get used to that there is much lyrical and brio presence to these works and the duo at hand. Clementi was a crown jewel of the classical movement, appreciated by both Mozart and Beethoven and a strong influence on their music.

Listening today you take in all the complexities and fundamental structural brilliance of the music. We perhaps now can appreciate more than ever how important his music was to the development of the centrality of the pianoforte in classical music. Of course perhaps most importantly the music itself is a joy to hear.

Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Markus Reuter, Todmorden 513, Concerto for Orchestra, Thomas A. Blomster, Colorado Chamber Orchestra

There are some works that even if you only hear a couple of minutes of it at first, you know there is something special going on. That's how I felt when I watched the You Tube video of the first performance of Todmorden 513, Concerto for Orchestra (7D Media 1414).

It all started when progressive-avant-rock touch guitarist (The Crimson ProjeKct, etc.) Markus Reuter was fooling around with algorithms on his laptop one day. He hit on one where he was able to generate 513 different three-note chords (if I am not mistaken). From this he tried to work out an arrangement and sequence for a small electric instrument configuration but the music was too complex to sound properly with this combination.

In the end he and Thomas A. Blomster consulted together, the result of which was a full orchestration of the musical sequence where for sound color purposes a medium-sized orchestra was divided not into the usual sections but by a number of smaller cells, a string quartet, trio, etc. The seating arrangement of the orchestra was changed to reflect these groupings. The Colorado Chamber Orchestra was assembled to run through an initial reading of the piece. After several revisions to the score and intensive rehearsals the orchestra performed the premiere last year. A recording session followed and now Todmorden 513 can be heard in all its subtle glory on a CD and DVD, the latter providing a 5:1 surround mix and a video documentary on the realization of the work.

It is a work like none other--though it sounds like what Morton Feldman might have written had he advanced to a new stage. In a way it sounds like everything a minimalist composition leaves out! There are endless modulations in harmony stated in sustained chords as well as arpeggiations. The long piece has a hypnotic quality, a ritual meditation on the possibilities of orchestral sound as an endlessly unwinding sky with light winds, with every cloud floating by different yet built of the same substance.

Reuter's conception and realization is brilliant; Thomas A. Blomster's orchestration is equally so, and the performance is dazzling. This, I am confident, is one of the most important orchestral works of our era. It is neither backward looking to the choppy sea of classical modernism nor is it contemporary in the usual ways we might find today. It is one-of-a-kind, like Terry Riley's "In C" but in its very own way.

You must surrender yourself to the sounds and give up expectations of thematic entertainment. This is in real-time like other musics but has more of a feel of the universe in perpetual motion than a local narrative event. It is exceedingly beautiful in a way that may exasperate the impatient, but then classical modern music is not generally fabricated for those looking for quick and easy thrills. The thrill will be there when you open yourself up, but you must allow the music to enter your mental world on its own terms.

This is a triumph. More than that it is brilliant, a breakthrough in form and sound. It belongs in the collection of anybody serious about understanding the most modern modern music. I tell you true. My wife liked it, also, which tells me it's not just a specialized sort of thing for the egghead weirdos out there like me! So do not hesitate!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ben Moore, Dear Theo, Three Song Cycles

As said the other day, modern song cycles aren't exactly a lost art, but the number of new releases in the realm are somewhat less than those for the more consistent output of symphonic and chamber works. Nonetheless there is good music to be had in the song realm if one looks out for it.

Today, three cycles by Ben Moore, Dear Theo (Delos 3437). Moore (b. 1960) is an American composer of today who excels in the song form. The three cycles represented in this disk show his talent for dramatic musical settings of interesting texts. As the composer remarks in the liners, all three have as underlying theme the wish for freedom.

"Dear Theo" centers around Vincent Van Gogh's many letters to his brother Theo. For his most important creative periods, Theo was his benefactor and confidant, a sounding board in a world where Vincent was often in extraordinary isolation, his art being the sole purpose of his existence but he needing urgently someone to listen to his hopes, fears and ruminating on artistic visions. That was most often, in fact almost exclusively at times satisfied via his letters to Theo. "Dear Theo" crafts a moving cycle around excerpts from the letters.

"So Free Am I" has as its basis selected poetic texts widely separated by time, written by women and expressing their need for free self-expression.

"Ode To A Nightingale" is based on the poem by John Keats, each stanza essentially handled by a different song.

As a bonus we get Moore's setting of Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree".

From a musical standpoint the harmonic progressions of each song have great interest. They aren't typical, they work quite well as a constantly evolving through-composed movement against the expressive vocal parts, and they conjoin with text and vocal to create an expressive whole. It's a well-thought out tonality Ben Moore creates in these songs, neo-romantic in their own way, with an excellently integrated vocal and piano nexus, a sophisticated, ultra-musical approach that wears well over many listenings.

All the performers do well expressing Moore's intentions. Brian Zeger has a poetic touch and a flowing way with the piano parts. The vocalists approach the songs mostly in a very declamatory, operatic style--Paul Appleby as tenor for "Dear Theo", Susanna Phillips, the soprano featured on "So Free Am I", and Brett Polegato, whose baritone seems especially suited to "Ode to a Nightingale". All cover their parts well and allow the music to bloom forth for us to enjoy and enter into.

Moore has a true affinity with and talent for the song cycle. Anyone who appreciates the form and looks for something modern and contemporary-tonal will respond readily to these cycles. Moore and his music have conviction and a beautiful sense of line. Recommended.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Villa-Lobos, The Guitar Manuscripts: Masterpieces and Lost Works 2, Andrea Bissoli, Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, etc.

What Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) did was create a vibrant modern Brazilian classical music virtually single-handedly. There were others, surely, composing there in his lifetime but he was the first to leave us a body of work that epitomized what is possible and left an original stamp that was both wholly original and very Brazilian.

You can hear this on many recordings, today's being a very good one. The Guitar Manuscripts 2 (Naxos 8.573116) takes up where Volume 1 leaves off, with more obscurities and classics. Once again Andrea Bissoli, guitarist of communicative warmth, plays the role of principal soloist here.

We begin with Bissoli's guitar arrangement of Villa-Lobos first extant composition, "Dime perche" from 1901. You can hear the composer already moving forward. "Valsa Concerto No. 2" from 1904, was apparently inspired by an overheard remark Segovia made about the unidiomatic qualities of V-L's guitar compositions. It remained unfinished until Andrea Bissoli did the honors.

From there we have four works that reflect on Villa-Lobos's transformation of Brazilian street band music, the first, "Sexteto mistico" (1917), and then the later series of direct adaptations of the popular Choros style to the musical modern-classical personality of early Villa-Lobos: "Introducao aos Choros" (1929) and "Chorus No. 6" (1926) for symphony orchestra, and "Choros No. 1" (1920) for solo guitar.

Finally we have a lovely "Cancao do Amor" (1958) for soprano and orchestra, a movement from "Forest of the Amazon", which was used (in part) as the soundtrack for the film version of Green Mansions.

The music is generally enthralling, the performances very good to excellent. Bissoli, Ensemble Musagete, the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra under Fabio Mechetti and soprano Gabriella Pace offer up to us the music in all its idiomatic splendor and charm.

Some of this is indeed obscure; all of it is very worthwhile Villa-Lobos that no doubt will give you many hours of enjoyment whether you are a confirmed Villa-Lobos appreciator (such as I am) or new to him. Very much recommended!

Friday, June 20, 2014

David Macbride, A Special Light

Some composers' music you might call DIY, or home-made. At the extreme is someone like Harry Partch who invented all the instruments and wrote the music for them with his own intuitive sense. I suppose Moondog would be in that category. Of course Charles Ives remains the most effectual and dramatic in what he did in defiance of his teachers--and the world as it existed at the time.

David Macbride seems to me in the home-made category too, judging from his music on A Special Light (Innova 886), a collection of 12 modern chamber works with varying configurations, all done Macbride-style. His own identity--with a Chinese mother and Scottish-rooted father--has given him a kind of flowing persona that helps him make his music singular. These are recent works of the past decade, works that reflect one way or another Chinese "musical and cultural traditions", in his own words.

Back to the "home-made" for a minute. It's not that the music sounds unschooled or naive, just that Macbride resolutely goes down his own path. There are aspects of his music that have ambiance in a radical tonality kind of way, such as the opening title work for piano and glockenspiel. There is not enough repetition to qualify as minimalist, and that more certainly gives his music its own thrust. The music has an almost folk quality, yet, no, it's rooted but also a bit wayward.

"1X4" and "1X8" are for cello and three or seven prerecorded cello tracks, respectively. They encapsulate an individual melodic linear sense, a modern counterpoint and spatial sensibility. There are three excerpts from "Percussion Park", what he calls his "communal music", a situation where the audience has some say as to the outcome of the work in performance. Beyond that there are additional percussion pieces, "Kelet" for violin and piano which recalls Chinese erhu music on the violin and also features pentatonic passage on the piano reminiscent of music for the guqin (a kind of Chinese zither). Then there is "Ave Maris Stella" utilizing 1/4 tones and other advanced techniques for the oboe and accompanied by an improvised percussion part. The latter work sounds more typically avant garde than many of the pieces here. All this shows you that he is more intent on expressing himself than in following the well-trodden, absolutist stylistic routes others may choose these days.

In all this there is a refreshing, plastic notion of "home". David Macbride has multiple "homes" in the origin sense and freely opens himself up to the possibilities of his multiple-heritage. But perhaps more importantly the music is all his. It is as unpredictable as it is fascinating.

A Special Light opens us to a spectrum of creative insights and achievements that are what David Macbride's music is all about. Recommended!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Messiaen, Turangalila-Symphonie, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu

In the early '50s Mercury records began recording symphony orchestras in their respective concert venues, using only a single microphone positioned in an ideal spot in the hall where the full balance of the orchestra would be optimized in ways the ideal audience members in the acoustically best seats might have heard the music. The Kubelik version of Pictures at an Exhibition with the Chicago Symphony was recorded this way with spectacular results. I still have an original vinyl pressing of the recording and it still sounds rather great, considering it is now over 60 years old and has been played a fair amount.

Of course those were the mono days, so one mike was all you needed in theory. But it supposed that the conductor and orchestra (and the orchestration) were fully realized in terms of balance and that the hall itself faithfully reproduced in all ways what the orchestra was doing.

Later on as recorded technology became more sophisticated, orchestra and conductor collaborated more and more with the record producer. Multi-microphone and multitrack recorders made it possible to spotlight various sections of the orchestra and if necessarily rebalance the sound to bring out aspects of the orchestration that did not project in real time but were critical to the whole. The audio team at London Records was especially fabulous using this method for complex forces and special effects in their opera series.

But the results could vary, of course.

I bring all this up in regards to Messiaen's 1946-48 masterwork Turangalila-Symphonie, a sonically complicated work of great power and contrast, a complicated aural mix of large orchestra with plenty of percussion and critical parts for piano and ondes Martenot, the latter an early electronic instrument that produces inimitable electronic tones by means of a keyboard.

It is a work of contrasting thematic elements which occur and recur in various combinations throughout the work. I have had a number of different recordings since I first starting appreciating the work in my late teen years. The version I most heard was a vinyl disk of Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Their performance had great spirit and fire. It has become the benchmark recording for me vis-a-vis other recordings.

And so now we have a new version by Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Ondine 1251-5), with Angela Hewitt taking on the solo piano part, Valerie Hartmann-Claverie on the ondes Martenot.

This version is remarkable on several fronts. First of all it is a version with the most judicious balance of forces I've yet to hear in a recording of the work, and I believe I've heard them all. The Ozawa tended to spotlight particular musical elements rather than get a full representation of what is in the score at all times. There are times when that (and similar balances in other recordings) did not do justice--to the full strings in collage-like contrast to a theme taken up by other orchestral sections, for example. Similarly there were times when the piano and ondes Martenot were highlighted, other times where they were barely audible. Not so, the Finnish recording. And it opens up the music considerably as a result.

Lintu, the Finnish Orchestra and the production team at Ondine get all in focus for the recording and the results are magnificent, stunning. There are times when Messiaen was reaching for complicated melds of contrasting figurations working against each other and those come through here in all their chaotic glory.

Perhaps even more importantly this is the most exciting recording of the symphony I've heard, by far. There is something to be said for our collective understanding of a bold new work developing and maturing over time. This was once a shocking piece. It now is well-loved and familiar to many. That familiarity helps us in grasping the work as a totality, and so the right conductor, orchestra and soloists may come to us with a good idea of where they are going with the music. And so they can take us there. Angela Hewitt plays the often fiendishly difficult piano part in a manner I can only call spectacular. Ms. Hartmann-Claverie excels in her ondes Martenot reading as well. And the Finnish Orchestra under Lintu give us a magnificent reading, savage and tender, mysterious and almost ribaldly colloquial, sometimes all at once. Messiaen meant us to hear all of these in combination, sometimes in clashing confrontation with one another.

Hannu Lintu and the forces give it to us without hesitation, with a sure sense of time and nuance. Moreover the recording is not only ultra-balanced, it is state-of-the-art!

Needless to say this one is strongly recommended. A more committed and true-to-life recording of the Turangalila you will not find, in my opinion. The Turangalila is landmark Messiaen and Lintu gives us a landmark performance! Indispensible!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hindemith, Herodiade, Inscape*, Richard Scerbo

Paul Hindemith's ballet score Herodiade (1944) (Sono Luminus) is a highlight of his later career, though not often recorded. Written for Martha Graham and based on the dialog poem by Stephane Mallarme, it was completed in between semesters at Yale, where Hindemith had settled in after fleeing Europe and a German ban on his compositions.

The score runs some 20 minutes. The well-received ensemble Inscape* under Richard Scerbo gives us a lively yet precise reading of the work as a download-only album. It is music typical of Hindemith's mature period, scored idiomatically for chamber orchestra.

If you don't have this one, here is your chance. It is prototypically Hindemithian so a good choice for those who do not as yet have much by the composer. And it is hard to do better than this new Inscape* performance, so it is a welcome rendition for the confirmed Hindemith enthusiast, too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Xavier Montsalvatge, Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Piano Trio

There is more than one Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002), the Spanish-Catalan composer. That is, over his career he worked in a number of overlapping styles. All that is clear when you listen to his Complete Works for Violin and Piano (Naxos 8.572621). There are works fully in the modernist zone, there are more neo-romantic, rhapsodic works, and there are works with a Spanish folk feeling that nevertheless maintain the Montsalvatge approach to it all. You can hear all of this in the album at hand, which covers the period 1943-1994.

Through it all there tends to be a melodic directness and a rhythmic vitality that is both Spanish in its way and 20th century as well, which perhaps accounts for in part the charm inherent in Montsalvatge's music. But it is the inventive qualities of his work here that takes the music further, that gives the music a certain brilliance.

The album today contains all the works for violin and piano plus the "Piano Trio" (1986-88). All of these works tend to feature an especially expressive violin part with the piano blocking out rhythmic-harmonic territory that is equally important to the sound and feel of the work but closer to what the piano part might do in a lieder, in other words with the violinist tending to take the lead role. The same applies to the "Piano Trio", with the cello forming a kind of neo-romantic basso continuo with the piano.

All the music has great vibrancy, brought forward admirably by violinist Eva Leon, pianist Jose Ramos Santana and celloist Sibylle Johner.

The program features four major compositions plus two miniatures. For violin and piano we start with "Parafrasis Concertante" (1975), the charming but brief "Lullaby" (1957) and "Spanish Sketch" (1943), "Tres Policromias" (1994), "Variaciones sobre un tema de Giles Farnaby" (1945), and finally on to the "Piano Trio" (1986-1988).

The "Variaciones" combine neo-baroque with Spanish-romantic brio. The "Parafrasis" and "Policromias" are the more outwardly modern, and the "Piano Trio" has a more neo-romantic spin on it all. But with these works the individual stamp of Montsalvatge and the 20th century are inherently present throughout.

This is a fascinating look at Montsalvatge "unplugged" as it were, expressing musically his unique mind in intimate terms. It is music well-constructed and often quite compelling, with brilliance and boldness.

Highly recommended.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Peter Maxwell Davies, The Lighthouse, an Opera

Naxos is doing a great service by issuing/reissuing much if not all of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies. We've been sampling some of it on these pages and it reveals a modern composer of great depth and stature.

Today we have his 1979 chamber opera The Lighthouse (Naxos 8.660354). It is a short one as operas go, complete on one disk as prologue and single act. The performance is a very good one, a reissue of Maxwell Davies conducting members of the BBC Philharmonic with Neil Mackie, Christopher Keyte and Ian Comboy in great form as the vocal protagonists.

The Lighthouse is based on a true story--of how a lighthouse supply ship made a routine call on the lighthouse on Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides in December, 1900. They found the lighthouse empty, yet all in order as if the three lighthouse keepers had abandoned their keep recently, in a hurry, vanished unaccounted for. None of them were ever found. Maxwell Davies takes these facts and builds a fantasia story about a threesome of keepers, one a fundamentalist, the other an agnostic and the third a mediator between the two. They argue, fog sets in, and they are besieged by ghosts from the past and the coming of a great light, the coming of "the beast".

It is a gripping story, the libretto written imaginatively by Maxwell Davies, with plenty of room for a macabre scenario that has music of great descriptive power.

The Naxos reissue does not have the libretto included, but for those who know English it poses no problem.

It is a gem of a work that unfolds more vividly with each hearing. And it gives you Maxwell Davies the modernist of dramatic tension. Every bar of music serves to illuminate the feeling of rusticity and supernatural doom inherent in the plot. He here nearly rivals Britten (not easy to do) in the brilliantly tight relationship of story to music.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Mark Abel, Terrain of the Heart, Song Cycles

The art song cycle today? I don't hear all that much of it as composed in the present, which may just mean I am not getting exposed to it, or there isn't that much getting recorded and released. Either way West Coast American composer Mark Abel is an exponent who excels in the genre, judging from his song cycle recording Terrain of the Heart (Delos 3438). Two years ago I covered another of his for vocal and orchestra, The Dream Gallery, and I was captivated (see April 13, 2012). I must say he has done the same for me here.

He came to composing in the classical realm rather late, first having careers in rock and journalism. The three cycles on this disk indicates he has made the right move. These songs are about feelings, memories, relationships. It is music with a romantic bent, but not like Brahms or Tchaikovsky. There is a connection I feel when listening to the Samuel Barber of "Knoxville", in the sense that there is a tonality and expression that is not really European, and it is modern-tonal. It is tonal music of today without the long baggage train of tradition following behind.

"The Dark-Eyed Chameleon" and "Rainbow Songs" feature soprano Jamie Chamberlin; "Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke" finds soprano Ariel Pisturino as the vocalist. Ms. Chamberlin has a powerful operatic presence; Ms. Pisturino is slightly more intimate but powerful too. Victoria Kirsch plays the piano parts throughout. She has a fully realized poetic demeanor that does much to bring out Mark Abel's distinctive pianistic concept, both rhapsodic and contemporary.

This is declamatorially vibrant and moving music all around. The through-composed interaction of soprano and piano, of the music and the lyrics, works on all levels. This is art song at a high-water mark of invention. Now that may not mean that this music is for everybody. It is for anybody who appreciates song cycles; others unfamiliar may need to adjust to the medium. But of course that is true of classical as a whole. How many who love Beethoven symphonies also love Schubert's song cycles? Perhaps not as large a number as one would like.

Setting those things aside as "not my problem" at the moment, all I can say is that Mark Abel has created some very fine music here. It may not be on the edge of the future, it is not avant garde, but it probably could not be that and be as expressively effective as it is. Jamie Chamberlin and Ariel Pisturino each bring their beautiful vocal instruments to bear on these songs and make them their own. Different singers would give the music a different spin. Their dramatic lyric charge puts the music in a certain place that, after getting used to, seems right. Victoria Kirsch opens up the piano sound and does the modern yet very pianistically idiomatic parts full justice.

In the end I respond to this music strongly. Mark Abel has a vision and the artists do much to give it a full realization. Bravo!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Remembering Alfred Deller, Bowman, Blaze, Turner, Robinson

The early music revival that began to burgeon last century changed what was ultimately part of the overall repertoire and how it was to be played. Works long dormant came to our ears again after centuries of neglect. The idea of instrumental and vocal authenticity in performance practice underwent a revolution, as did the number of artist and ensembles devoted to the music.

Certainly the rise of countertenor Alfred Deller had a great impact on all this. At the same time contemporary composers began increasingly to turn to instrumental and vocal aspects of early music as inspiration to their works. Composers Michael Tippett and Walter Bergmann were important figures in general and for Alfred Deller in particular. Tippett encouraged Deller, introduced him to the concert world and wrote importance music for him; Bergmann was a key musician (harpsichord and recorder) in the heady first years of the revival in England, and a composer of talent who showed the influence of early music. Both had influence on editions of Henry Purcell's music that came out then, which had vast ramifications for the movement.

All this is celebrated and commemorated in the new album Remembering Alfred Deller (Divine Art 25114), a well conceived album of early and contemporary music performed by countertenors James Bowman and Robin Blaze and recorder artists John Turner and Laura Robinson. They are joined as needed by a continuo of harpsichord and cello, and solo guitar.

Everyone sounds quite good in the performances here. The program ranges widely: 20th century works by Bergmann and Tippett as well as Peter Racine Fricker and Alan Ridout, early music works by Handel and William Williams, and the extraordinary John Blow (1649-1708) work "Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell" a beautiful piece that Alfred Deller gained renown from in performance. (His version happened to be on the first early music LP I was exposed to when young).

The album by showing both the modern look-back of contemporary composers and some of the revived works gives you a feel for the impact the rise of Deller and the early music movement had last century. It is an absorbing listen, a nicely performed, even surprising program of affinities and influence.

Well-worth hearing and studying in depth!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fernando Lopes-Graça, Piano Music, Artur Pizarro

Fernando Lopes-Graça (1906-1994) was one of Portugal's foremost exponents of modernism. I am the lesser for not having heard his music much previously. Happily I have a copy now of Artur Pizarro playing a goodly selection of his Piano Music (Capriccio 5196). If I say that his piano music has more in common with Stravinsky than Schoenberg or Boulez, that is not to say that he sounds like a Stravinsky imitation, far from it. It is only to say that there is a harmonic-melodic situational horizontality and rhythmic drive that puts the music closer to Stravinsky than Boulez. The liners say he is like Bartok for the incorporation of folk strains (here from Portugal) into the modernist approach. I do not find that a contradiction. I do hear that too so I add that to my description.

There are four works/suites on this album. Both earlier and later works are represented: "Ao Fio dos Anos e das Horas" was completed in 1979; "Variacoes sobre um tema popular portugues" is his opus 1 from 1927; the "Nove Dancas Breves" dates from 1938-1948, and there is his "Piano Sonata No. 2" from 1939.

All these works show sparkle, zest and brilliance along with a genuine feel for the pianoforte. They are played well by Maestro Pizarro. There is perhaps a hair more abstraction in the later work but nonetheless a pleasing continuity of folk and modernism throughout. The sonata has a more formal structural bent, perhaps, than the others but in all of these it is clear that Fernando Lopes-Graça was both of his time and original.

There is much sheer pleasure to be gained from becoming familiar with this music and its fine performances. This is not the music of a backwater. It is fundamental, even foundational piano music of the last century. It is sure to please those who love the burgeoning of the new as of last century, lovers of piano music and explorers of our now rather gracefully aging musical modernist period.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

David Lang, Love Fail, Anonymous 4

What makes one work reach out to you, another not? There are multitudes of factors, of course. All the technical elements of music and all the thematic treatments, both as story and as musical statement. They all go into it.

And so with David Lang's Love Fail (Cantaloupe 21100) there is a conjoinment of many different factors that makes me feel, after hearing the work and the inimitable Anonymous Four's performance of it a number of times, that yes, this is good.

Minimalism, which this music both is and is beyond, must stand or fall on its musical content. And stand it does, Love Fail. It's not just the Anonymous Four's performance (they are supreme in handling early music), there is something ritualistic, chant-like about the music as it presents itself in time.

It is all about love, romantic love, and it draws upon the Tristan and Isolde story as well as a series of impressions and disjointed happenstances that describe the he and she of the couple and ultimately their disconnect. Earthly life ending puts an end to earthly love in the active tense. But there of course are disconnects that can take place within an active coupling here on earth. The work has a hazy, dream-like presence so that you are left with things remembered, qualities, events, and in the end, loss, at times in terms of finely detailed focus, other times as a hazy remembrance that conveys grief as well as experiences gone, the lack of them in the present.

The music structure alternates between fairly long, flowing, sometimes contrapuntal passages and short melodic-text fragments. The fragments give you that feeling of disconnect. If there is repetition it pretty much quickly turns to variation and subtractive-additive phrasings, like old plainchant a little. And in that way you get the emotional analogy of the story in the structure of the music.

It makes for a moving experience. And as Marcel Mauss famously said about human exchange, you get a sort of total social phenomenon. Words, text and performance make of the work a widely and oddly totalized thing, even though there is at most times nothing "large" about the sound.

Part of that is that David Lang has a knack, a way of moving along in his works that gives movement within works and also between them. He stands still not at all. And this work has a kind of dramatic enveloped bell curve to it that goes from start to finish and effectively drives you the listener to experience directly a bleak but tender sadness. Loss.

Needless to say I recommend this very much. There is a timelessness, a once-upon-a-timelessness that universal story telling can give you, only it hangs together as music extraordinarily well. You are left in the end with absence and memory.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Weinberg, Symphony No. 18 "War - There is No Word More Cruel", Trumpet Concerto, St. Petersburg State Symphony, Lande

The renaissance of the music of Weinberg continues. It is quite heartening how much is coming out. So today another new one. Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersburg State Symphony give us his "Symphony No. 18" and "Trumpet Concerto" (Naxos 8.573190).

These are excellently solid performances of works well worth having. Why did the Russians especially do such wonderful symphonies on the theme of World War II? If we look to the US, nothing stands out (at least I cannot think of anything at the moment. . . "Victory at Sea"? Not a symphony.), yet Russia gave us Prokofiev's "Symphony No. 5" and Shostakovitch's "Symphony No. 7", both monumental and incredibly moving. And then Weinberg, with whom we are catching up, did a trilogy of symphonies on the theme, Nos. 17-19. Today the center of the whole, No. 18, which is aptly subtitled "War - There is No Word More Cruel".

We are (or I am) so used to and fond of the Prokofiev and Shostakovich war symphonies that the Weinberg works have to be considered at this point apart. They may not quite compete on first blush with those masterpieces, or do they?

I've been spending time with the 18th and it is as you expect an expressively somber work. It has the Weinberg long form, in a rather modern sounding harmonic palette (it is a later work, 1982-84) and begins with an orchestral movement that has a feeling of grief that is amplified in the three following movements with added chorus. It is a complex work in every way worthy of the later Weinberg and his blossoming during the thaw.

The Trumpet Concerto that is included here, from the sixties, has symphonic dimensions, a penchant for quoting Mendelssohn (and why especially the Wedding March?) and a more playful liveliness that acts as a foil to the ponderous seriousness of his 18th.

This might not be my first choice for those getting to know Weinberg, but it is nonetheless a welcome addition. Lande and the amassed choral and instrumental forces give us a performance worthy of the brilliance of the music. And at the Naxos price it is an attractive package!

Very recommended. Weinberg!

Friday, June 6, 2014

ZOFO, ZOFORBIT: A Space Odyssey, Sisask, Holst, Crumb, Lang

Concept albums can do interesting things and be lots of fun if the idea is right. The piano duo ZOFO, who we have covered before here, had a great idea and made it work. The album is called ZOFORBIT: A Space Odyssey (Sono Luminus 92178). It is a logical grouping of four compositions for piano, four hands, with the theme of space, the universe, the cosmos.

They've come up with four compositions that all address such themes, some well-known, some lesser-known, but all near-perfect for the duo. Holst's "The Planets" sounds wonderful in a duo arrangement, then there is George Crumb's "Celestial Mechanics" from "Makrokosmos IV". David Lang gets a say with the brief "Gravity" and finally the least known of the four works/composers but a good addition nonetheless, Urmas Sisask (b. 1960) and "The Milky Way".

ZOFO is Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi. They combine a very together simpatico duo dynamic with a real sense of fun. The album as is usually the case on Sono Luminus comes in a set as a standard stereo CD and a Blu-Ray DVD with a 5:1 surround mix.

"The Planets" in a four-hand piano version has a kind of revelatory quality. All the notes are there (all the necessary ones) and it sounds so idiomatic and modern in an all-piano zone that it's like hearing it anew all over again. The rendition forms a definite high-water mark that will please just about anybody.

The Crumb work is given all the cosmic spatiality it deserves. The Lang has a pleasing contemplative quality. And then the surprise of the set is Sisask's "The Milky Way" subtitled "Piano Sonata op. 24 for Four Hands". It has ritual rhythmic movement in an exotic minor mode, greatly abetted by the passages where the strings are dampened or strummed. It almost sounds like gamelan music, only more cosmic.

So here we have what is a real treat. . . . something in the outer zone, eminently suited for those evenings when you don the silver space outfit, get out the Tang and head for realms unknown and far away. If there is hope for the younger generation taking to modern classical, ZOFO has found a way--making it fun! Give it to your teenager or budding toddler, even. A delight!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Aeonia, At the Door to Eternity, Music of Donald Skirvin and Eric Banks, the Esoterics

The voice was probably the first instrument. 19th century armchair speculation about the origins of everything usually asserted it. There's no reason to believe it isn't true. We may have gotten the idea from listening to the birds on a fine spring morning. No doubt it happened spontaneously among many separate groups scattered across the world. Who can say?

Whatever happened then, it is true today that we respond naturally to vocal music. A good chance to do that is provided by the a cappella Seattle choral group the Esoterics, now in their 20th year. They have a bias toward the performance of modern works, and that is much needed. They are excellent.

On their new disk Aeonia: At the Door to Eternity (Terpsichore 1513), they feature two modern symphonic suites for unaccompanied chorus. "Stars Forever While We Sleep" by Donald Skirvin (b. 1946) and "I am Among Them" by Eric Banks (b. 1969). Both works are thoroughly evocative, tonal contemporary offerings beautifully rendered by the choral ensemble.

Skirvin has been Composer in Residence for the Esoterics ever since 1998. Understandably he has composed a good number of works for chorus. The present one at hand was composed in 2009 and uses the poetry of Sara Teasdale as texts. Eric Banks is the Musical Director of the Esoterics and he too is a composer of multiple choral works. The present composition heard here was composed in 2013 and is based on poetic texts by Dan-Eric Slocum.

Each work has warmth, beauty and a sort of searchingly poetic quality handled beautifully by the 36-voice ensemble. Choral works of this sort when well sung are nearly irresistible to my ears. Certainly the Esoterics are among the foremost of such ensembles today. They give us much to appreciate on Aeonia.

Very recommended.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Matthew Burtner, That Which is Bodiless is Reflected in Bodies

The natural tonal qualities of pitched and unpitched percussion have an affinity with electronic music. Back in the day (1972) the simple little studio that was a supplement to the huge RCA Synthesizer at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center had little for sound generation except an oscillator, a Moog, an electric organ and a gong. The gong of course was rich in overtones and so had a complex timbral quality that made it a great addition. Some of us remember live and electro-acoustic works Stockhausen made centered around a gong. Of course percussionists had their renaissance as an important component of high modernism in general beginning especially with Varese and his all-percussion "Ionisation" and going from there. The last 100 years have seen the transformation completed. Looking back, it is rather one of the more amazing developments in "Western" music in our time.

With all that as a backdrop I introduce to you Matthew Burtner and his electro-acoustic album That Which is Bodiless is Reflected in Bodies (Centaur). I have the sounds and the cover and not a lot else to go with as far as information. But what I find on Burtner's website and what I hear gives me plenty to talk about.

There are nine parts to the work as a whole. They vary greatly from the sonically sustained soundscape to the pulsating electro-acoustic noise-pitch poem. The prototype version was written in 2004, created for playback in the rotunda dome of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. That original version was for Tibetan singing bowl and electronics. The version we hear on the album adds a more extensive live percussion set up.

In the composer's words the work is meant to explore "notions of disembodiment through the combination of physical and virtual objects and environments".

The experience of this work is that of a cosmic sound-world, a shifting kaleidoscope of timbral presence that has a particular individual quality for each movement.

It has the ambiance of place and time. There is an engaging interaction of complex timbres, both pitched and unpitched, working together in nearly orchestral ways. If this be music (and of course it is), play on.

The adventurous electro-acoustic explorers out there should eat this one up. Nothing I've heard sounds quite like it. The singularity that is Matthew Burtner deserves your attention. Recommended!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Anne Vanschothorst, Harp, Ek is Elk

Today's CD has an ambient moodiness born of the sensitive harp playing of Anne Vanschothorst, alone, or in a duo or trio with other instrumentalists. Ek is Elk (Big Round 8932) is the title. The pieces have a gentle quality that plays upon delicate ostinato figures or other sustaining structures in the harp and in the case of the duos and trios a second (and when appropriate a third), sometimes improvisatory sounding part that no doubt is pre-arranged/composed but has a spontaneous, fantasia sort of flow to it.

There are several pieces that are co-composed by Bob van Luijt and feature the harp along with his bass, samples, effects and digi-orchestration. Other duets join Anne with the post-Milesian jazz-inflected trumpet of Saskia Laroo, Ernst Stolz on viola da gamba, and a trio with Arthur Bont on percussion and Thijs de Melker on acoustic bass.

The effect is a structured but dream-like realm of enchantment, a freely unfolding exotic sort of classical ambiance of mood and expressivity, a sort of post-ECM spaciousness.

Ms. Vanschothorst has a beautiful presence on her harp. She and her musical partners craft music to while away nearly an hour now and again to rock you gently into an internal world of well-being.

It is not modern in the cutting-edge of new conceptual innovation sense so much as a series of charming vignettes with which to furnish your inner space for a time. For that it is perfect. Most charming! It is good for what ails you.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Malcolm Williamson, Organ Music

The organ continues to find adepts and composers for the very obvious reason that it still plays a central role in liturgical services of the cathedrals of importance in the world. Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) was both an adept and a composer of note. Raised in Australia he came to England in 1953 and made something of a name for himself as a composer there, enjoying the tutelage of Eugene Goossens and the approval of Benjamin Britten.

He became Master of the Queen's Music in 1975 and retained that position until his death. His organ music shows a bold modernism that in part comes out of Messiaen's influence but then strikes out on its own path. A volume devoted to his organ music is just out, played with panache by Tim Winpenny on the aurally spectacular organ of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol (Toccata 0246).

The "Symphony for Organ" (1960) is the centerpiece of the recital. Surrounding works, some enjoying their first recording, date from 1955-6 ("Fons Amoris") up through 1980-1, with the Offertoire from the "Mass of the People of God".

Throughout the sound is brilliant, the performances strong and dynamic, and the music alternatingly mystical and triumphant. It shows us that Williamson was a major figure in modern organ music. Both organ aficionados and those who appreciate the harmonically enriched world of modernism will respond to this readily.

Perhaps it is one that's easy to overlook, but in its own way it is monumental!