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Monday, November 30, 2015

Jan Jirasek, Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols, JITRO Czech Children's Chorus, Jiri Skopal

Today's post looks at an unusual volume, at least for those of us who live outside the region this music hails from. I speak of Jan Jirasek's arrangements of Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols (Navona 6010). The performances center around the JITRO Czech Children's Chorus with instrumental accompaniment, directed by Jiri Skopal. They are a spirited and sonorous outfit, well suited to the fare at hand.

These are a fine selection of what I gather are traditional carols from the region, arranged for chorus and chamber orchestra in a folk-early music style. I must say that I do not recognize any of these, which is exactly fine with me, as I am the sort who tires of the standard fare and am happiest when I can appreciate and discover other traditions outside what I am likely to hear involuntarily on television, radio or in the malls here in the US. So I do tend to explore more from the early periods in the US and Europe, or things that are new.

If you are of Czech-Moravian descent you may know at least some of these, and so you will respond for different reasons at least initially. For the rest of us this is a veritable "Festivus" of unfamiliar music, at once folk-like, early-music drenched, filled with the patina of age and archaicisms in the best senses.

The performances have enthusiasm and finesse in equal proportions. Jirasek's arrangements have much to recommended them--and combined with the choir's exacting zeal make for an irresistible program.

If you look for something different for your holiday season, this one most certainly qualifies and does so with a genuine flair. I recommend this strongly for those who seek to rejuvenate the around-home repertoire this year. But then of course it can be portable too!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Baptiste Trotignon, Concerto pour Piano, "Different Spaces," Nicholas Angelich, Orchestre National Bourdeaux Aquitaine, Paul Daniel

Music can be modern, that is, can show a contemporary, present-day quality without necessarily making use of all or any of the typical traits of modernism. This we know. Composer-pianist Baptiste Trotignon is modern in that way. The recent recording of his Concerto pour Piano, "Different Spaces" (Naive V 5382) gives us his music under near ideal circumstances, with Nicholas Angelich taking on the solo piano role wonderfully well and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine under Paul Daniel giving us a striking reading of the orchestral score.

Baptiste, in addition to flourishing here as a composer of distinction in the strictly classical field, is an active and fertile practitioner in jazz-Afro-American genres. His dual background comes through in the music at hand most prominently in the rhythmic aspects.

But in other, sometimes subtle ways as well. The Concerto is complemented by "Trois Pieces pour deux pianos," featuring Angelich and the composer on pianos, and "Trois Preludes pour piano seul" for Angelich alone.

All of the music comes together to present a picture of the composer in the present day. The Concerto has a finely orchestrated presence, a sort of grand sweep, not predictably "the sort of concerto a jazz pianist-composer would write," whatever that means, but a work wholly dedicated to the classical idiom, tonal-modern with the tang and phrasing of the contemporary and a lively dynamic give-and-take between pianist and orchestra.

His very pianistic outlook comes through beautifully on the concerto and the two works for piano(s) alone. There is lyricism and a linear naturalness of expression, a somewhat abstract sense of note choice in melody that nonetheless speaks to us, a rhythmic vitality and a sure sense of extended form in the balanced phrasings.

The music has substance, strength in its near-pictoral mood painting in the French tradition, yet extended in original ways. I found the whole program of great interest. Baptiste Trotignon is a phenomenon, a musical personality of consequence, not out to overwhelm you with a great deal of technical fireworks, but to make music that speaks to you directly and dramatically.

Strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Poulenc, Francaix, Martinu, Durey, 20th Century Harpsichord Music, Christopher D. Lewis

The idea of the old-in-the-new is not new to the later 20th-early 21st centuries. It has been with us I suppose as early as composers who used Plainchant for cantus firmi in their polyphonic masses. The full-fledged Bach revival in the romantic era and a renewed attention to counterpoint that followed would be another example.

And yes, in the height of modernism-as-new there can be found such things. 20th Century Harpsichord Music (Naxos 8.573364) by Christopher D. Lewis gives us a nicely chosen anthology of modern-era composers who in one way or another responded to Wanda Landowska's resurrection of the harpsichord beginning with her collaboration with Pleyel in creating a modern version of the instrument between 1905 and 1912, and then thanks to her concertizing and recordings made everyone aware again of the sound world the instrument could produce.

Modern works followed. Lewis picks five mostly early modern composers and six works, all of which have something of an earlier-meets-later quality to them. All the works are in a tonal mode, and all owe something in their makeup to the baroque in the way the music is structured, be it contrapuntally or in terms of quasi-dance forms, etc.

So we get some works-composers that are known to many, some less so, but all worthwhile and well performed. Francis Poulenc's lovely "Suite Francaise" leads off the program. It is followed by "Deux Pieces" (1977) by Jean Francaix, three works by Martinu and one suite by Louis Durey (1888-1979).

All of the music has a neo-classical quality. The hearing of the variety of works is enlightening and very enjoyable. Christopher D. Lewis does a fine job. I recommend this set for the music and performances, to anyone with a sense of exploration and appreciation for the treasures of 20th century music but also with an itch for the old-in-new possibilities that the pre-post-modern era can provide. An excellent program is to be had here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Julia Wolfe, Anthracite Fields

Minimalism today. Are there as many versions as there are composers? Possibly. It is still one of the principal modern idioms in classical music, of course, but it is for many a different thing than it was during its classically hypnotic phase of the '70s and early '80s. Take Julia Wolfe. Take her Pulitzer Prize winning composition Anthracite Fields (Cantaloupe 21111), enjoying its world premiere recording by the Bang On A Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under Julian Wachner.

Julia grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania not far from a once thriving anthracite coal mining district, which had its peak at the turn of last century. Anthracite Fields is a kind of homage to the miners and their difficult and dangerous toils. In five thematic movements the chamber ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars joins with the Trinity Wall Street Choir for a textual thematic unity. The movements are "Foundations," "Breaker Boys," "Speech," "Flowers," and "Appliances." The chamber group consists of cello, bass, keyboards, drums, guitar and clarinets, two of the instrumentalists adding their vocals. They straddle classical and rock modes, mostly more or less straightforward minimalism for the bulk of the music.

Like her "Steel Hammer" (reviewed on these pages; see search box) Wolfe utilizes text phrases that form the centerpiece of meaning for each movement. So for example the names of miners who were on the accident index during peak years are sung out in mostly unison in a measured chant-like periodicity. For its repetitive core the names are limited to those who had the first name "John." The unison has then a counter-melody that enters in about halfway through. "Breaker Boys" deals with the young workers who removed debris from the output of the coal-bearing shutes, a physically painful task. "Mickey Pick Slate" and other children's game rhymes form the core texts. "Speech" makes use of a speech made by the United Mine Worker's President John L. Lewis about the hard lives of sacrifice made by the workers so that Americans could live comfortably. The remaining two movements proceed in similar fashion. In the repetition of phases from the various textual sources a minimalist matrix is built up for each movement.

On a meaning level, all of this is very moving. There is a deliberate banality to the music itself, in its use of unisons, thirds and simple diatonic phrases. Most of them have little in the way of musical interest and the effect is to focus the listener on the texts and create a simple consonance that has life mostly through rhythmic treatment. The repetition does not mesmerize. It repeats.

I appreciate this work for its commitment and often find parts invigorating. At other times I will admit to you that there is a deliberate tedium that is, well, tedious. I cannot blame Julia Wolfe for the intervalic elementalness of the music. That is her choice. It must appeal to a wide number of people because of the simplicity, but after a time and with repeated hearings I find myself wishing for a little less sing-song. Of course if sing-song is her aim, she succeeds! One could argue that the banal repetition corresponds to the repetitive labor, and that's fine. For that it can be easily appreciated and grasped on first hearing by the least musical among us; but repeated hearings do not yield a great deal of heightening, not for me. It stays where it was and does not budge.

I realize that this is my problem and that the work evokes the tragedy of this way of life quite well, but at least half of the music content I do not engage with readily. And the repetition seems not entirely chant-like, which would be fine, but at times too darned banal to interest me. That banal simplicity may appeal, I grant it, just not as much to me.

Since it won the Pulitzer Prize this year, there are obviously those who feel that it is worthy. I congratulate Ms. Wolfe for a very dramatic statement. And I generally like her music. This one is very good to hear, but much of it seems in the end uninteresting to me. Musically it does not move me, mostly. You may feel differently. Sorry.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sibelius, Swanwhite -- Complete Incidental Music, etc., Leif Segerstam, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra

The uniqueness, almost stubborn uniqueness of composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is something we can perhaps marvel at today. He was determined to go his own way during his most productive years, for a large potion of the 20th century. He produced seven symphonies, a violin concerto, and tone poems, which have gained a sort of immortality from his own time through to the present. He was the voice of Finland, not quite neo-romantic and not modern with the stylistic traits we generally identify under that name, totally himself yet in a very Finnish sense, without trying to put too fine a point on it.

But not all of his music is well known. Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra have been devoting time and care to recording some of the lesser-known orchestral works, principally incidental music, in a series of releases for Naxos. I covered one a short while ago (use search box above to find that) and now another: Swanwhite -- Complete Incidental Music and others (Naxos 8.573341).

The album devotes much of its time to "Swanwhite" (1908) and "Odlan (The Lizard)" (1909), each running nearly a half-hour. Then there are the brief music and narrative sequences "A Lonely Ski Trail" (1948) and "The Countess' Portrait" (1905).

We get some very attractive tone painting from the early stages of his career for the most part. The influence of Grieg can sometimes be discerned, otherwise this is proto-Sibelius that speaks on its own terms. He most certainly shows his brilliant orchestrational genius in embryo here. And the music sings out dramatically and attractively.

The performances are quite good, sensitive to the sweep of Sibelius's grand natural gestures. The music may not be quite at the high point of mature Sibelius, so perhaps this is not the place for the listener to start with the composer if one does not already know him. But for those convinced Sibeliphiles it is all very nice to hear, something you will want to have.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Giya Kancheli, Chiaroscuro, Kremer, Kopatchinskaja, Kremerata Baltica

Georgian composer Giya Kancheli is 80. In part to celebrate that and the intrinsic value of the music itself, Kremerata Baltica with Gidon Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja have recorded two very appealing works released under the title Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442).

They are tonal, rhapsodic, introspective works that have their own life in a post-modern landscape. The title work "Chiaroscuro" with Gidon Kremer as violin soloist, and "Twilight" for Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, have a sprawling, somewhat mysteriously reflective aural landscaping with some genetic resemblance at first blush to the Barber "Adagio" and Berg's "Violin Concerto." That is only in mood, for the music is most definitely of our time, but also Georgian, hauntingly lambent, in the sense of softly bright, radiant, reflectively melancholy to my ears and at times unleashing a momentary turbulence.

Kramer, Kopatchinskaja and the Kremerata Baltica sound wonderfully well with this music. They fully capture the mood with the help of the meticulously soundstaged ECM audio.

There is a glowing yet tender quality to the music that reflects the sensibilities of our times somehow, yet does so in strikingly original terms. The minor sonance unravels with a kind of logical inevitably, a sweetly taking stock. And in the end you are moved, ravished and taken away by the music's dramatic resolve.

I cannot but recommend it heartily. It enthralls and envelopes the listener in adagio dreams. It will doubtless appeal to many as it does to me. Bravo!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gyorgy Kurtag, Kafka Fragments, Caroline Melzer, Nurit Stark

Franz Kafka created an alternate world in his writings that was like no other, parallel to the reality he lived within and in many ways a displacement of the disconnects and disregards we all can be subject to in a modern nation-state world. It was virtually hyper-real and so vividly colored by his imaginative scenarios that we see in modern life something we have perhaps been trying not to notice, but can be of course very much there.

Composer Gyorgy Kurtag has taken a series of textual extracts from Kafka's diaries, letters and unpublished stories and made a long song cycle of them for soprano and violin, Kafka Fragments (1985-87) (BIS 2175).

It is a stark landscape musically and textually that Kurtag sets for voice and violin alone. The music parallels the texts with moments of agitated expression, a ruminative bleakness and many shades in between. The violin part is filled with double stops and a modernity that gives the music at times echoes in familial relationship to Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" in its folk-fiddling avantness. But here the "fiddler" and the vocalist are very much alone, fitting to Kafka's uncanny point of view and his unrelenting probing of existence, demanding answers that are not forthcoming.

The 40 separate fragments are generally quite short, a minute or two for each with a few running longer, six or seven minutes. Each is a word-song picture that sets its mood and then is gone.

Soprano Caroline Melzer and violinist Nurit Stark immerse themselves in the score with an explosive expressiveness and a contrasting reflectivity that seem just right for this music. It is all very much in a modern post-serialist mode, brittle near-lyricism countered by a hard expressivity not untypical of Kurtag in this period.

The music stands on its own as something very much unto itself. There is nothing quite like this out there. That in itself is saying a great deal. It is an unforgettable work, a fitting analog of the Kafka sensibility set in tone.

It demands your undivided attention and rewards with stunning, uncompromising exploratory probings. There is a seriousness of purpose here that is unrelenting and all the more memorable for it.

Modern aficionados, take note! Recommended strongly for the committed new music adept.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hummel, Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 36, 35 and 41 Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano

There are times when you need to take a break from the hurly-burly, to freshen the senses with something completely different yet familiar. That would seem to me a good time to put on the Hummel Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 36 "Linz", 35 "Haffner", and 41 "Jupiter" Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano (Naxos 8.572842). These of course are some of Mozart's most celebrated later works in a chamber setting, with his illustrious pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel doing the arranging.

The music appears in an exposed setting, displaying all its charms but pared down to the essentials. Hummel does the reframing with subtlety, using the piano as a fulcrum point as he well would have if the quartets were composed of his music, and nicely scoring the flute, violin and cello parts to make the music sing wonderfully well. There are some nice Hummel touches here and there that remind us he was moving in early romantic circles.

The parts contain plenty of brio--and a virtuoso side that brings elements into closer focus. The present recording features Uwe Grodd on flute, Friedemann Eichhorn on violin, Martin Hummel on cello and Richard Kruger on piano. They are zestily declamatory when called for, sweetly tender at other times, and in short give the parts an exuberant motility and inspired enthusiasm perfectly suited to the music.

Of course most anyone hearing these arrangements are intimately familiar with the Mozart symphonic originals and so can envision their micro-adaptation to the chamber ensemble with a sort of immediacy. The themes, the passagework, the perfection of the music is still there only there is an at times a Promethean triumph of quartet over the struggles of making this music truly breathe under new circumstances.

The result is pure delight, I suppose you could say. It is a full CD of real fulfillment. There is an earlier volume out with the same premise but of course different symphonies. Start with this one, though. Then if you need more there is that.

Exceptional fun!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Heinz Holliger, Machaut-Transkriptionen, Guillaume de Machaut

The modern music arena, like the modern visual arts scene, may frustrate you if you have one rigidly defined set of features that you apply like a grid over everything new you experience. Half the time or more, the music may evade your definition and yet be worthwhile and even important. You get more out of the explorations when you approach new music on its own terms, one work at a time. Only then may the various patterns emerge alongside one another, though of course everything is changing, mutating, going forward month-to-month.

Much commentary on the scene tends to freeze that ever-evolving whole in order to describe the situation on the ground at x point in time, but of course the natural way is that it continues to move forward. That is hard to put into words so long as there continues to be an opening up of the future that is the opposite of a one-style dominance. And we are most definitely in a very creative, generative period in the times in which we live.

The new recording by Heinz Holliger is nicely symptomatic of a branch of the process of contemporization right now. Machaut-Transkriptionen (ECM New Series 2224) makes use of the famed Hilliard Ensemble vocalists and three violas to resituate a cycle of works by 14th century early music master Giullaume de Machaut.

Beginning with literal transcriptions of the Machaut works, Holliger gradually transforms them with ever-increasing interjections of modern elements, dissonance, extended playing techniques (harmonics, for example), and various displacements.

This is a further example of the old-in-the-new, the search for convergences of early and modern musics that Stravinsky did with Gesualdo, Lukas Foss and his "Baroque Variations" exemplified in the '60s for a later period of early music, then Penderecki reaffirmed in very different ways in his vocal works beginning with his early-mid period. More recently of course Arvo Part came on the scene with a distinct style that contained some definitive transformations. He has rightfully been made much of in the late-20th century through to today. But the process by no means ends at Part. It continues on and Holliger is among the prime movers as we hear on this album.

Holliger's refiguration of Machaut takes the four vocalists and three violists increasingly across time from early to late, at the same time interjecting his own musical vision yet situating it within a world first sourced out of Machaut's subtle part-writing and periodistic spatiality.

The music is impeccably performed, captured beautifully and has a dramatically transformative trajectory that gives us a sonic momentum as contentful as it is moving. It is first-rate early-to-modern music and a great example of why Holliger occupies a special niche as a present-day innovator.

Hear this and be a part of the contemporary developments going on out there. Very recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Eleanor Cory, Things Are, String Quartet No. 3, etc.

Eleanor Cory (b 1943) is another one of those composers you may know something of or may have missed altogether. Her music has been performed widely but her recordings have not circulated quite as much. She has a way about her, as can be heard in her recent six-work anthology Things Are, String Quartet No. 3 [etc.] (Naxos 8.559784). All are world premiere recordings in a chamber context.

Her music is a varying mix of tonal, atonal and modal, a constellation of contemporary stances that vary with the requirement of a piece. The results are well put-together, individual, sometimes lyrically expressive and largely modern in the classic sense.

The anthology is a good sampling of works written between 1973 and 2012.

The "Violin Sonata No. 1" is the latest work and shows her expressively rhapsodic-modern side with memorably active passage work that projects forward in ways quite appealing.

The "String Quartet No. 3" (2009) is filled with motivic road signs that guide the listener through the musical terrain with articulate grace. "Sweetly melancholic" is how the work is described in the liners and well so. "Things Are" (2011) is for flute and piano, dedicated to Milton Babbitt. It has the rangy openness that Babbitt would have appreciated.

The "Celebration" (2008) for solo piano has contemporary virtuoso agitation/repose and a bit of a very modern jazz flavor to it. Stephen Gosling does the honors as soloist and shows the interpretative range so needed for this one to come across.

The performances are all first-rate. Eleanor Cory shows herself a composer of expressive smarts, dash and lyrical modernism, indeed a first-rank post-high modernist that has mastered a divergent harmonic-melodic way that covers much ground with a naturally assimilative yet individual approach that sounds effortless though of course a good deal of work has gone into these pieces.

Some chamber gems are here for you to appreciate. They hold together well with repeated listens and give us a stance that has a unified authenticity and a stylistic flourish that makes Cory a living modernist of high caliber. This is well worth your time!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Andre Gagnon, Baroque

My Monday dawns as I listen to the newly recorded Baroque (Atma Classique ACD2 2715), a compendium of modern-day works written in the baroque style by Andre Gagnon. It suits my need for something positive and bracing in a world I at the moment find somewhat loathsome. I am reminded of an old friend who stopped listening to the avant garde many years ago with the comment that he "already felt terrible and the music just reinforced it." Of course you do not go to the Museum of Modern Art and expect to find happy, chipper things, so why then must music always be that? If music is solely something to enhance your mood, then he may be right. But if you seek that sort of thing you may end up listening to musak or new age, ultimately, or what used to be called "easy listening."

It does not wash to me; ideally music is not made for you to wallow in like a pig in the mud. For that same reason the MOMA is not as yet filled with 1,000 happy faces on canvas. And yet I am glad to hear this music right now on this Monday because it is well made, inspired, even if out of season for what you expect a composer to be doing in these present day circumstances. One swallow does not make a summer, though, so we can have this music without fear that it will somehow negate everything else we call "modern" today.

The fact is that Andre Gagnon's new baroque music is very engaging. The music was written in 1969 and 1972 and originally recorded for release by Columbia records in two albums where, as the liners tell us, they did well.

The new recording uses all period instruments (that is of the baroque period) and gets a nicely brio reading by Daniel Constantineau conducting the Orchestra symphonique de la Vallee-du-Haut-Saint-Laurent, with Jean-Willy Kunz on harpsichord. (The original recordings had the keyboard part played on the piano, so this too is a more authentic period touch.)

The music consists of four sets of suites corresponding to the four seasons, "Mes quatre saisons." Then there are the "Les Turluteries Suite"(s) No. 1 and No. 2. It is remarkably baroque in form, in its contrapuntal part writing, its bright emotional range and its treatment of themes. The music has plenty of invention to it. It may not have quite the depth of a JS Bach, but that was as much true of most baroque composers in the day as well, of course.

The originality of the music, and what perhaps makes you think of the modern day if you listen carefully enough for it, is in the thematic material. It is generally lyrical, and not always characteristically baroque. That makes this music much more than a clone of another era. It is a product of today in the end. But even if you do not pay as strict attention to the thematic play it is music of real substance.

Should a composer do such a thing in our world today? Why not? I might be alarmed if all contemporary composers went baroque in this way, but that is not the case. And if the music satisfies without pandering to mood, listeners are all the better for it.

The performances are convincing, lively, and very musical. And the music itself rings true. So I do recommend this one strongly.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble, Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies

This time of year puts me in mind of brass choir and organ. That of course has to do with the upcoming holiday season and the coming of winter. If you crave the enormous and sometimes enormously subtle massing of such forces, there is a new CD out that puts you in front of an excellent group, The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble, with founder and artistic director Rodney Holmes. They tackle a wide variety of music on their Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies (MSR 1598). The Gargoyles are in fine fettle, joined now and again by a timpanist.

Understandably most of this is music of the grand gesture. Much of it is music I am not familiar with, by contemporary composers who have a flare for the grouping at hand. So we have Carlyle Sharpe and his "Flourishes" (2005-2010), and also his "Prelude, Elegy and Scherzo" (2012); William White and his five-part suite "The Dwarf Planets" (2012); David Marlatt's "Earthscape" (2011); and Peter Meechan's "Velvet Blue" (2012) a bluesy pulsating adventure ultimately in a sort of jazz-rock mode that adds drum set and gives us an unexpected treat.

For somewhat earlier sounds we get a 2013 arrangement of Jaromir Weinberger's "Polka and Fugue" from "Schwanda, the Bagpiper" (1926) and a nice arrangement of the "Adagio and Maestoso" from Saint-Saens' "Organ Symphony" ("Symphony No. 3") that first saw the light of day in 1886.

The modern works are tonal and very idiomatic for the instrumentation. Everything fits together well. The fabulous musicality of the Gargoyle Ensemble is matched by a bright, exciting recorded sound that does justice to the dynamics and grandeur of the performances.

It is some repertoire you will not always know and so it is a real addition for those who need to clear out the cobwebs in one's listening space with something very new! This is an excellent disk and great fun as well. Grab it and get prepared for some fireworks of sound.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Karl Weigl, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Violin Concerto, Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock

Karl Weigl (1881-1949) was one of the leading lights of Vienna before WWII and his Jewish status put him in danger. He fled to the United States like a good number of other composers fortunate enough to get out, where he taught and composed until his death in 1949. Unlike some others his reputation was shrounded in relative obscurity. It is only in recent times that his music has begun to be performed again.

But in the Vienna of his younger days he flourished. He studied with Alexander Zemlinsky and Robert Fuchs, became a vocal coach during Mahler's directorship of the Vienna Opera, and his works were performed and acclaimed in the years that followed.

Other than a CRI LP recording of his songs that came out in I believe the early 1980s, I have heard nothing of his music until now.

That all changes with a fine recording of his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and his Violin Concerto (Capriccio 5232), performed by the Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock under Manfred Hermann Lehner. Florian Krumpock and David Fruhwirth happily take on the solo piano and violin roles, respectively.

The music is in every way deserving of our ears. It is post-Brahmsian, tonal with few modernist traces. But it is music of high craftsmanship and beauty. The works were written in 1924 and 1928, respectively, when Weigl was at the height of his career. And they seem exemplary and significant to me.

The "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand" was one of those commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein after an injury in WWI left him without his right arm. Thus Weigl joined the illustrious company of Prokofiev, Ravel, Britten, Hindemith, Korngold, Schmidt and Richard Strauss to receive a commission. Wittgenstein never performed the Prokofiev or the Hindemith works, which were too modern and incomprehensible to him, but for some reason he did not perform the Weigl concerto either. Incredibly it went unperformed until 2002, when Florian Krumpock gave its world premiere. So it is fitting that he is the soloist for this recording.

It is a work of glowing lyricism and depth, notably missing the sturm und drang of his late romantic counterparts but in no way lightweight in substance. Weigl might well have triumphed if the work had been performed at the time. Nonetheless we are well served by the modern-day recording with soloist and orchestra giving the work a very spirited and sonorous reading.

The Violin Concerto fared somewhat better in the day, getting one performance in 1930, whether well-received or not I do not know. It received several performances after Weigl's death but did not get any significant attention again until 2009. David Fruhwirth gives it a marvelous reading on the present recording, as does the orchestra. Like the Piano Concerto it is on the neo-classic side of romanticism, in that there is a contained expressive content that plays out as part of the work's tripartite form. So we get more Brahmsian symmetry than Straussian maelstroms of expression. Yet for all that Weigl does not sound at all derivative.

What matters is the quality of the music, which is a revelation to those of us that know little of Weigl. He may not have been the leader of a new music movement in his lifetime, but the two concertos have very much a life of their own and sound fresh and appealing to present-day ears, mine anyway.

There is nothing lacking in the performances and the sound quality is of the highest order. Here is a modern composer of definite weight, not certainly a part of the progressive modernist movements going on around him, but that matters little at this point.

This is Weigl in very persuasive terms. The music brings much to us. He did not deserve such neglect. Listen and I think you will agree.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Matt Haimovitz, Orbit, Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014)

After celebrating Matt Haimovitz's recent recording of Bach's unaccompanied Cello Suites (see October 13th posting) I was reminded that I had planned to cover his earlier unaccompanied cello anthology, Orbit, Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014) (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 542). So I fished it out from the pending stack and gave it a number of close listens.

What Haimovitz did for Bach (and also Beethoven, see earlier posting), so he does for a wide spectrum of the modern repertoire, not of course so much make them period specific, since this IS the period we are in, but to make the music an extension of himself.

We get three full CDs of a wide assortment of modern works by the likes of Philip Glass, Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Luigi Dallapiccola, Steven Mackey, Tod Machover, Ned Rorem, Lewis Spratlan, and a host of others, some lesser-known, but all somehow expressing the modern classical idiom in all its variant guises. We even get a Haimovitz arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's famed solo guitar version of the "Star Spangled Banner" and a solo cello version of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter."

This is a treasure trove of solo cello as it has flowered in the modern present, which started in part from a respect for Bach's "Suites" by artists like Max Reger and Paul Hindemith in the first half of last century and continued on into high modernism and the contemporary music of recent years. The cutoff beginning point of 1945 means that we do not hear the earliest examples of the solo renaissance, but that I hope can be the subject of another anthology down the road.

No matter. There is more than enough to appreciate in this set. These are works that are sometimes fiendishly difficult, always advancing the cello into our world. Matt Haimovitz has fabulous technique and a very intelligent and impassioned interpretive bent. This is an opportunity to express what the zeitgeist is all about today in cello terms. Whether it be the abstract heights of Ligeti and Carter or the post-modern lyricism of Philip Glass, Matt gives us tour de force mastery and a flow that belies the sometimes rapidly shifting manners of articulation.

The sheer variety of the modern repertoire when taken in its widest sense as it is here and the beautiful outpourings of Matt Haimovitz's cello in mastering and making cogent the many stylistic variants give us a remarkable extended program. This is manna for cello lovers, infinite stimulation for any serious modern chamber enthusiast, and just plain wonderful for anyone with a sense of vastness and exploration that the modern musical world affords. Very recommended!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dino Saluzzi, Imagenes: Music for Piano, Horacio Lavandera

Celebrated Argentinian bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi (1935-) has written occasional music over the years that exists alongside his primary bandoneon ensemble music. For example between 1960 and 2002 he was written a goodly assortment of music for solo piano. We get a fine selection of this on his Imagenes: Music for Piano (ECM New Series B0023792-02), as played with care by Horacio Lavandera. These works have never been recorded before. The disk comes out in celebration of the composer's 80th birthday.

The works are sometimes reflective, rather impressionistic essays with touches of neo-romanticism and at times a Satie-like lyrical simplicity. There are also elements of Argentine traditions that come to the forefront on occasion. But in the end, as Saluzzi says, "music is one." And so the total effect is of a music not easy classified. Modern, yes, classical, certainly, but occupying a space of its own, reflective and with a feeling of solitude often enough, but then there are pieces of bright activity, too. And in the end there is an originality.

Pianist Horacio Lavandera brings to the music a poetic flare, an interpretive acumen and beauty of touch that is totally right for the music. The ECM production gives us a glowing piano presence that creates an immersive staging, setting this music off nicely.

The album has much to recommend it. Saluzzi gives us an original voice that neither follows well trodden ground nor does it live in the contemporary moment. There is something of a timelessness to this music, beyond a present and a past, a pure and lyrical Saluzzi that expresses his musical self elegantly and pristinely.

I recommend you hear this music.

Monday, November 9, 2015

McCormick Percussion Group, Plot: Music for Unspecified Instruments

Works for percussion ensemble have evolved over the years, so that at times the idiomatic sorts of music like "Ionization" by Varese or early John Cage works have been supplemented by music that claims its sound parameters in less percussion-precise terms. On the edge of this is music that could be played by percussion instruments or any combination of instruments whatsoever and further, music that does not have any one set of possible outcomes, but depends upon a particular realization in the performance setting.

The worthy institution of the McCormick Percussion Group under Robert McCormick has devoted a two-CD set to these sorts of works. Plot: Music for Unspecified Instruments (Ravello 7916 2-CDs) gives us a fascinating look at seven such examples, the most famous being Earl Brown's "December 1952" but there are a diverse set of possibilities included on the program, which covers a wide time period between 1935 and 2010-11.

The pitch versus the unpitched percussion instruments give us of course two different possible worlds of sound. And in the end in such pieces the unpitched do increasingly get perceived in their never-absent pitched possibilities, though it is a matter more for perception than special intent given the parameters of the works.

The universe of possibilities gets various realizations: "Bones" (2000) by Stuart Saunders Smith consists of "melodies and piano music," with the order, tempo and dynamics subject to improvisation.

"Nine and a Half for Henry (And Wilbur and Orville)" (1970) by Robert Erickson deals with tapes capturing the sounds of engines and machinery with the musicians instructed to relate freely to those sounds.

"Percussion" (1935) by Johanna Magdalena Beyer has specific written parts and is part of a body of diverse works by this most neglected composer.

"Percussion Responses" (1964) by James Tenney consists of graphic notation for a number of percussionists in interaction with Tenney's electromagnetic tape of computer generated sounds, "Ergodos II."

"Plot" (1967) by Herbert Brun is a graphics score for solo percussionist with specific choices on the part of the performer in terms of instrument, method of sound production, timbre and "sound connectivity."

"Pacific Sirens" (1969), yet another work by Robert Erickson, uses electronically transformed sounds of the surf with specific instrumental reponses for a continuous "siren song."

"December 1952" (1952) is Earl Brown's historic, graphically notated score meant for improvisational use by any number and combination of players, here in a realization for vibraphone and piano.

Finally, "Winter" (2010-11) by Stuart Saunders Smith, consists of a large array of "musical ideas and through-composed solos" that an unspecified number of instruments make use of by "recomposing" the sequence and content in any given performance.

That is the run-down of what this anthology contains. Most of these works would sound very different in content when performed by other players at other times. The McCormick Percussion Group thus puts their own personal stamp on this anthology to perhaps a much greater degree than they might with works that presuppose a set instrumentation and notation sequence.

That they succeed in providing us with a long program of definitive interest and atmospheric presence is a testament to the group and Robert McCormick's sympathetic and very creative artistry. Perhaps ironically the music has a kind of wholeness that mostly exists outside the personalities of the individual performers, an ensemble cohesiveness that is more than the sum of the artists involved. This in a way is the opposite of jazz improvisation, which typically demands a stylistically individual response with the emphasis on sound-personality fingerprinting.

The anthology fascinates and beguiles consistently as it also challenges the listener to come to grips with the form and structure inherent in the freedom these works provide. It is as liberating in its own way for the listener as it is for the performers. Bravo!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Richard Wagner, Wesendonck-Lieder, Edward Elgar, Sea Pictures, etc. Sarah Rose Taylor, Nigel Potts

When you listen to music over a lifetime, some of it becomes like "old friends," ever-generating of significant time spent, ever renewing. I suppose I would say that of Richard Wagner's "Wesendonck-Lieder," which I still have an old London LP of that I bought now long ago, as sung by the inimitable Kirsten Flagstad.

Old friends like that can change a bit over time, not only in how you hear the music, but in new performances. Today mezzo-soprano Sarah Rose Taylor with Nigel Potts at the organ, give us a notable version, along with Sir Edward Elgar's "Sea Pictures" and etc. (MSR 1532).

Wagner and Elgar go well together, no surprise there. Both works were intended for something other than organ, the "Wesendonck" for solo piano but later orchestrated in full by Felix Mottl, the "Sea Pictures" for orchestra. Added to the program is Wagner's "Prelude" from "Tristan und Isolde," fitting since parts of the "Wesendonck" were reworked for that opera (notably the Love Scene). Also added is "The Angel's Farewell" from Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius." It all goes together quite nicely here.

Grace Cloutier joins Potts on harp for parts of the "Prelude" and "Sea Pictures." Both she and Potts are in excellent form, but ultimately this is a spotlight for Sarah Rose Taylor. She has a very beautful mezzo-soprano voice, filled with lyrical tenderness and power as needed. I am very impressed with her vocal artistry.

Ms. Taylor's ravishing voice, the organ (and harp) arrangements and the Potts/Cloutier realizations of these exceptional works make this program a very special one. This is music of a fleeting eternity of moments in lives and the mood is captured with a touching resonance on this disk.

It is unforgettable and Sarah Rose Taylor is a marvel!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Christopher Rouse, Seeing, Kabir Padavali, Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller

Perhaps an excellent test for a recording of works of modern complexity is if on a few listens it remains vividly etched in the mind in spite of a period of highly distracting everyday situations. That's the case for me with American composer Christopher Rouse and his world premiere recordings of Seeing and Kabir Padavali (Naxos 8.559799). Both works were written in 1998 and feature the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller.

"Seeing" is a piano concerto with Orion Weiss effectively attacking the solo part. "Kabir Padavali" is a setting of texts by Indian poet Kabir and features Talise Trevigne in the soprano solo role.

"Seeing" was commissioned for Emanuel Axe and the New York Philharmonic. In discussions with the composer before the work was composed, Emanuel revealed that he never planned to perform Robert Schumann's celebrated "Piano Concerto" out of a feeling of modesty. The composer as a sort of humorous aside dealt with a few motifs from the concerto as he began writing the work. The composer was searching his mind for an appropriate title for the work when he by chance came across an old rock recording in his collection, namely Moby Grape 69. As he listened again after a number of years he was struck by the final track, "Seeing," written by the group's guitarist Skip Spence. A chance encounter with a book on rock history shortly after revealed to Rouse that Spence had become incurably psychotic and was institutionalized.

Given Schumann's mental illness a pattern became clear to Rouse, and the result is that "Seeing" is thematically centered around sanity and the lack, on the world as seen through the eyes of mental illness. There are occasional quotations from Schumann's concerto but on the whole this is a work that emphasizes extremes in consonance and dissonance. It is a brash, exciting work with some fiendishly difficult and extroverted piano expressions and an orchestral give-and-take that magnifies and comments on the piano's role in a hugely expressive, rather unforgettable manner. The effect is ultra-modern and extraordinarily dynamic. Weiss and the Albany Symphony under Miller give the work life in beautiful ways. It is a modernist blockbuster!

The second work, "Kabir Padavali" is highly contrastive, modern in a more reflective way, dealing with the poet Kabir's imagery and musings on the world, on music, on life from an Indian religious point of view. Ms. Trevigne gives her part a lovely reading. The music complements "Seeing" as a very different mood piece, more searching than gestural, but equally vivid in its very evocative unveiling through time.

It is an album of considerable interest. The world premiere performances do the music justice impressively and it shows us two sides of the masterful Christopher Rouse that brings his considerable orchestral acuity to the forefront while creating piano and soprano solo roles that stand out for their marvelous construction and affective interactions with the orchestra.

Christopher Rouse is an essential composer in the high modernist camp. This volume gives you two excellent examples of his music, played with zeal and precision. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Accentus, Bruno Mantovani, Voices

Accentus is a crack choral ensemble directed by Laurence Equilbey and Pieter-Jelle de Boer. They embark on an exploration of the works of Boris Mantovani for their recent album Voices (Naive 5420). Four works are represented: "Cinq poemes de Janos Pilinsky," "Vier geistliche Gedichte," "Monde evanoui (Fragments pour Babylone)," and "Cantate No 4 'Komm, Jesu, Komm.'" Added to the choral ensemble as needed (on "Cantate") are Sonia Wieder-Atherton on cello and Pascal Contet on accordion.

All are atmospherically ultra-modern in a post-Ligeti cum Bruno Mantovanian way. Blocks of sound events are laid out architectonically like the structures of a building-in-progress with relative quiescence or agitation as the composer warrants for each sequential unit.

The music demands precision, expression and a highly sonorous musical quality that Accentus takes to readily and beautifully. It would be no exaggeration to state that they come off here as a supreme vehicle for modernist choral music. This is by no means an easy set of pieces to perform but they make it all work with a seeming effortlessness and ease that is by no means easy to achieve.

Kudos, Bruno Mantovani. Kudos, Accentus!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Grazyna Bacewicz, Complete String Quartets 2, Lutoslawski Quartet

Here we are in the middle of the second decade of the new millennium. We've finally gotten comfortable with the spelling of the word millennium, things are moving on towards a new age of some sort, yet the 20th century has not yielded all its charms to the bulk of us. Not yet.

An excellent example of what we are uncovering can be found in the recent release of the Complete String Quartets 2 of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) (Naxos 8.572007) as played by the Lutoslawski Quartet. It is the concluding volume of the set that so vividly conveys the exceptional worth of the seven quartets, in its very considerable renditions of her String Quartets No. 4 (1951), No. 2 (1943), and No. 5 (1955). (See the August 26th posting for the review of volume 1.)

Volume 2 affirms the high quality of all the quartets, as volume 1 partly revealed. These are indeed gems of 20th century chamber music, unknown to most of us until now. It shows a Grazyna Bacewicz of excellent craftsmanship and high invention. Each quartet occupies a world unto its own, and the sum total is impressive indeed.

Based on the fine performances of the Lutoslawski Quartet in the two volumes, Bacewicz's Quartets occupy the highest levels of expressive achievement in this genre, rivaling Bartok, Carter and Ligeti in their own way. They bear the stamp of Bacewicz's position in time, with each being a reflection of where she stood in her stylistic development. But none sound transitional or tentative. Each is fully satisfying, complete.

The liner notes tell me that the Fourth Quartet has been one of the better known in the cycle, and there is good reason why it might have gotten attention. It has commanding thematic content. Yet Nos. 2 and 5 do not feel the lesser for it.

They show a composer very familiar with the string instruments and what they are capable of, a great sense of fluency, a modernism that is not as radical as Carter's, surely, but there is a tempered lyrical robustness to her quartets and a general sense of synthesis of the entire century's advances up to each point in time--and an expressive four-part facility that is second to none.

And that I can attest to by the evidence of my ears more so than some analytic acumen one might get with score in hand and plenty of time and space. That isn't needed to appreciate the worth of these works, because their beauty and eloquence are very much available to the careful listener.

If you value the celebration of exceptional women composers, and who does not, and if the string quartet is a genre you love, or even if you are simply in search of composers who deserve your attention, this set is essential. And for Bacewicz lovers already initiated, it goes without saying that these will broaden your appreciation considerably. They are gems and the performances are on the highest levels! Seek no further if you seek something "new" and excellent to enliven your everyday world right now. Modernism in the 20th century has yielded more treasures! Who knew?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Niels Lyhne Lokkegaard, Sound X Sound, Music for 30 Chromatic Tuners

Another 45 RPM "Single," as it were, is now available from composer Niels Lyhne Lokkegaard, namely Sound X Sound Music for 30 Chromatic Tuners (Hiatus 013).

Lokkegaard creates his music, as the title suggests, from a veritable orchestra of digital tuners.

Tones emerge, are in part de-tuned into microtonal complexes as fascinating as they are dense and rich. As per the last release (type his name in the search box above for that) Lokkegaard shows us the possibilities available from a collective gathering of tones generated by simple means which thrive in their multiplicity, when experienced in such "orchestral" settings.

It is a simple idea on the surface yet yields nice results via the rigor of the realizations and the untoward virtuality and reality in space.

It is a worthy irreverence and another fine example of Lokkegaard's sense of inventive sonic possibilities.

Join in the beehive-like swarm of sound as a listener. Listening does not feel passive when the sounds are collectively expressed in this way. You feel in the middle of it all, not on the outside. Listen!

Philip Glass, Glassworlds 2, Complete Etudes Nos. 1-20, Nicolas Horvath

There is a point where performance can make or break a work. I've certainly come to that with many pieces, but for some of the minimalists it is especially true. Philip Glass, one of the doyens of minimalism (even though perhaps he does not like the term) has been quite prolific in later years. The solo piano works are very much a part of the output, and in the past I have found some of them disappointing.

I don't feel that way on the recent recording Glassworks 2, Complete Etudes Nos. 1-20 (Grand Piano 690). And as I listen I realize it has much to do with Nicolas Horvath as the pianist. This is his second collection of Glass pieces. I have not heard the first as yet, but this one gives me plenty to appreciate.

The works were composed in spurts from the nineties through to nearly today. They have a cyclical quality as one might expect from Glass. The brilliant Lisztian-Rachmaninovian virtuosity that Nicolas Horvath brings to the cycle generates a good deal of bravado and even excitement. It makes of the Etudes a series of grand flourishes, of tumultuous outbursts that become something more than a sort of rote attention to the motifs would give you.

Glass himself tends to look at these works as allowing a good deal of latitude, as the liner notes mention, and the Horvath way seems much in keeping with the works and their potential.

So it all comes across as music with powerful impact. In Horvath's hands these are convincing torrents of pianistic energy! Bravo!