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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Antonio Soler, Harpsichord Sonatas, Barbara Harbach, Box Set

Antonio Soler (1729-1783) may not be as well-known these days as someone like CPE Bach, but his music has a vitality that sounds right to us today. He was born in Catalan and had a successful career in Spain, ultimately as chapel master for the Royal Court in El Escorial. He was an ordained priest.

We look to his masterful Harpsichord Sonatas (MSR 1300 14-CDs), some 120 in all, for his early classical inventiveness. Barbara Harbach gives us an exhaustive, but certainly not exhausting rendition of the 120 in the recent limited edition box set.

They are a remarkable body of music, rhythmically lively, filled with clarity of form and singing melodic charm. They sound most certainly related to Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas, so much so that there has been speculation that Soler studied with him when he was tenured in Spain, but we do not know for sure.

They both have that infectiously lively approach that fills the ears and heart with great good cheer. Both sets of sonatas are at times very Spanish in their dance-like vivacity. And both grab you with their gallant quality and straightforward musical perfection.

Barbara Harbach sounds entirely ravishing in her performances throughout. She seems just right on Willard Martin's 1989 copy of an 18th century two-manual French harpsichord. And the recording has a pristine clarity of sound that goes far in making the music come alive.

If you love Scarlatti's sonatas you will find the Soler entrancing as well. Do you really need all 14 volumes? They come at a very good price, so why not treat yourself? It's music played with great verve and there is no time or mood where the music does not fit in, in my experience. It is something to cheer you in the new year ahead!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bela Bartok, Piano Music, Terry Eder

The influence and importance of Bela Bartok (1881-1945) is still being felt and experienced in the contemporary music world. As if to remind us of music sometimes a bit overlooked, pianist Terry Eder gives us a volume of select Piano Music (MSR 1410).

The album makes an intelligent presentation of works that exemplify Bartok's extensive involvement with and modern transformations of the folk music of Eastern Europe--here Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

The music opens with the landmark early expression of his folk-inflected modernism, the op. 6 "14 Bagatelles" of 1908.

It continues with the folk-modern nexus so critical to an understanding of the master--with "Two Romanian Dances" (1910), "15 Hungarian Peasant Songs" (1914-1918), "Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs" (1920), and "6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm" from his "Mikrokosmos, Volume VI."

This is music of great verve, ingenuity, originality and a rooted contemporarity that continues to communicate to us.

Pianist Terry Eder gives us a sparkling interpretation of these pieces, with an open rubato that expresses the free invention of the Bartokian musical mind more than sentiment, and an irrepressible rhythmic verve on the folk dance liveliness of the peasant-rooted material.

In the end we have a Terry Eder who revels in this music, getting inside it and affirming how it speaks very much to us in the new century. It is a beautiful panorama of the playful pianism of one of the shining stars of the twentieth century and forefathers of the present day. Terry Eder shines too in her interpretations. This is a treat for the ears! Hear it and open up to the fun and adventure of Bela at his most earthy. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Frances White, She Lost Her Voice That's How We Knew

When life events become traumatic, awe-ful, ineffable, we are often at a loss for words or cannot speak them. That is the idea behind the opera for a single soprano and electronics by Frances White, She Lost Her Voice, That's How We Knew (Ravello 7915). The libretto is by Valeria Vasilevski, who also created and directed the staging. Kristin Norderval performs the solo soprano role with dedication, drama and tonal differentiation. Elizabeth Brown performs the shakuhachi part. The electronic score is based on and built out of the timbral qualities of Ms. Norderval's voice.

I've covered and very much appreciated an earlier work of Frances White--In the Library of Dreams (see index search box for that review).

There is a zen abstract suchness to the libretto and the music. Use of space, color and pinpointed affect-event structures have a mystical, almost traditional Asian cast. There is a poetic quality to it all, which the libretto concretizes in words about being unable to speak.

The music is rich and creatively archaic-modern in its play on tones, their stasis and their transformation in envelopes and blocks of shifting color-texture. The mystical, eerie drone and soundscaping of vocals and electronics and the poignancy of the libretto leave one transfixed, contemplative, and filled with a kind of wonder at the transient nature of life and its experience.

It is the music of a going beyond, a 21st century analogue of Berio's iconic Visage, only fully today, post-experimental, primal in creately effective ways but also filled perhaps with our present-day zeitgeist, where events can leave us speechless, forever changed yet fully conscious of the impact.

There is magic in this work. It is singularly transformative in dramatic ways. It has its say and is gone, and what is left is the you to reflect on its meaning.

A new modern statement of importance. That is what it seems to be to me. It definitely will appeal to and intrigue those open to exploratory soundscapes and contemporary electronics-opera-sonic theater. There is a naturalness to it that stands alongside of our experience of "nature" yet remains apart from it. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Carson Cooman, Liminal

Carson Cooman is a composer of great output and special sensibilities. There is so much of his music I have not yet heard, yet what I have heard and reviewed on these pages is significantly worthwhile. One of the very best of the recent recordings is Liminal (Diversions 24161).

It is a 36-minute mini-album with three works represented. There is the brief but primal "Shoreline Rune" (2014) for string orchestra and harp, the Symphony No. 4 (Liminal), and a brief work for organ, "Prism" (2003). The Slovak National Orchestra under Kirk Trevor does the honors for the orchestral works; Erik Simmons appears on organ for "Prism." The performances are very good, as is the sound.

These three pieces work together to create a mood of mystery. "Shoreline Rune" begins the album with a slow and reflectively archaic feeling to it. As the composer states in the liners, it is as if one were standing on the shoreline experiencing an entire tide cycle but within a space of five minutes.

The centerpiece of the album is Cooman's "Symphony No. 4," which deals with climate change and the idea of liminality, being neither in a beginning state nor in a state of transformation, but in a state of ambiguity, something that our present experience of the climate may be said to occupy. The music reflects the diverse climatic regions on earth and their slow transformation. The piece hopes we may find the courage and fortitude to get through and if possible ameliorate the unfolding processes.

Musically the work has an expanded tonality and a dramatic dynamic that is eloquent and moving. The mood is both foreboding and hopeful, expressive in a masterful use of orchestral forces and modern in outlook. It is a work of great strength, deserving a hearing as a pinpoint symphonic work of our time.

The conclusion, "Prism," forms a postlude to the symphony with mystically contemplative and ultimately heroically optimistic open voicings. It is perhaps a sound image of the universe set right, in a steady state, transcendent.

The music is most definitely an experience not to miss. Cooman establishes his voice, or one of his voices, in no uncertain terms and gives us a sonic journey both subtle and of great evocative power.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Broer, Coble, Yip, Turbulent Sky, Contemporary Works for Orchestra

If you crave something from the ever-evolving, new modern-high modern repertoire of the present, you might consider the recent anthology Turbulent Sky: Contemporary Works for Orchestra (Navona 6012).

On it we are treated to three worthwhile compositions by composers not yet household names: "Symphony for String Orchestra" by Fred Broer, "Zephyr" by William Coble, and "The Luminous Mystery" by Stephen Yip. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronsky give us the premiere recorded performances here, and they do the music justice.

The Broer work is the longest of the three with a tripartite movement sequence that fills out the work with over 30 minutes of expressionist modernism of an often intricate and tempestuous sort. It most exemplifies the turbulence of the album's title. The strings express the inventively lucid tone painting of a Broer with a clear idea of what he envisions from the strings and beautifully realizes.

William Coble's somewhat brief "Zephyr" has a sort of post-Stravinsky orchestrational brilliance with great movement and a vocalise part well realized by soprano Hailey Fuqua. The music is rather wondrously mobile, multi-layered and colorful, meant to suggest clouds rolling together to create a sudden storm.

Stephen Yip's "The Luminous Mystery" amasses full orchestral forces and the solo violin of Vit Muzik to express Catholic mysticism. The violin part is vibrantly present to put the work into a concerted mode. It is a finely crafted, brilliantly contemporary outing that punctuates the anthology most fittingly.

Turbulent Sky demonstrates three contrasting approaches to the orchestra, All three revel in the advanced idiom of high modernism and show us three important voices in the new music today. I found it all most exhilarating. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Blue Heron, Christmas in Medieval England

One more for the last-minute folks out there. It is the early music vocal ensemble Blue Heron and their Christmas Music in Medieval England (Blue Heron 1006), a collection of carols, music for Mass, plainchant and motets one might likely have heard in one way or another at this time of year in England circa 1440, when the last of this music was composed. We get modern early music performance practice in the ten member choral group divided into the cantus, the contratenor, tenor and bassus parts. The album sequence was as heard live in concert on various nights in December, 2013, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The group sounds excellent under the directorship of Scott Metcalfe. Some of the music is accompanied by medieval harp, as would have been appropriate. The texts are in Latin and English in the style of pronunciation in use at that time. So the "Hayl Mary, ful of Grace" pronounces Grace as "Grahse."

It is music that is very beautiful and performed with spirit by the ensemble. If you tend to early Christmas music or even grew up with some of it, you will doubtless recognize "Veni, veni Emanuel," "Ther is no rose of swych vertu" and "Nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva" among others. Yet there is much that may not be familiar.

It is all fitting and rather haunting. You listen and you feel time passing. Some may have had ancestors who heard or even performed this music, but no matter if not, because this is not music of exclusion. In the same way as most in the United States greet one another with the phrase "Happy Holidays" this time of year, so this is music about the joy of the season, no matter what you subscribe to in sectarian terms. Freedom of religion is the freedom to honor the creation in the manner of your choosing, without punishment or recrimination. And so you are free to listen to this music on whatever level you choose, with the idea that the music reflects an important period in the history of Western music, as so in the world at large with musical traditions centered around religion in so many various ways.

Perhaps more to the point at hand, this is a beautiful selection of music that does not even begin to exhaust what has survived of the period, yet it provides an excellent sampling of the various genres in play during the times.

Blue Heron is a fine group and they sound quite inspired on this album. Highly recommended! Happy holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tenebrae, A Very English Christmas

For those with a last-minute need for something nice for the Christmas season, this is just in: the choral ensemble Tenebrae and their latest, A Very English Christmas (Bene Arte 902). It is a collection of compositions and re-arrangements of Christmas Carols by 20th century English composers.

First off, Tenebrae sound glorious. They as amassed choir (sometimes with organ accompaniment) and as soloists are nothing short of angelic, and they go a long way in establishing a beautiful sonance that make the new material come alive in the best holiday tradition.

The music provides the listener with some exceptional alternatives to the usual fare, with a few rearrangements-reharmonizations like "I Saw Three Ships," but mostly altogether original carols, many in settings with traditional texts.

So we get five beauties by Peter Warlock (someone I've been appreciating more and more lately), plus gems by Simon Preston (you probably know him as organist), Arnold Bax, John Gardner, Philip Radcliff, Paul Edwards (no relation, that I know of), Philip Ledger, and others. Many of these names may not be well-known to you, or known as conductors or organists, but all come through with movingly nice modern carols, some with a bit of the spice of modern harmonies, but all in the choral carol tradition.

If you are like me, if you seek far and wide to expand your knowledge of carols through extensive spatial and temporal realms, wherever you can go for good and great examples, this will be a boon. Even if not the music will captivate and beguile you.

This one is a knockout on all counts. Grab a copy!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Ann Southam, Glass Houses Revisited, Christina Petrowska Quilico

The late Ann Southam produced some of the most original and distinctive minimalist music to be heard. On May 22, 2014 here I covered Glass Houses Volume 2, a significant collection of some of her solo piano works performed beautifully by Christina Petrowska Quilico.

Thanks to Centrediscs, we can explore the first volume of this collection (Centrediscs 16511) today. It is every bit as worthwhile as the second volume, maybe even more so.

Southam's solo piano works are like tongue twisters, or learning to rub your stomach and jump up and down at the same time, only a great deal more rewarding in result. That has to do with the rhythmically distinctive contrasts between the left-hand ostinatos and the melodic figurations of the right hand. They mesh in tempo but have often enough the feel of contrasting meters.

Add to that the primal diatonic irresistibility of the right-handed melodic figures, which are rhythmically vibrant and far from banal, but instead memorable in the best ways. When meshed with the swirling ostinato figures the music has the trance magic of the very best minimalist works, yet utterly original, utterly Southam-esque.

This is by no means easy music to play properly, in spite of the diatonics. Christina Petrowska Quilico gives them a combination of legato lyricism and a rhythmic swing that make of the music all it should be.

Volume one covers nine of the "Glass Houses" movements, each one a miniature of happy complexities and lyrical drive. Here is a wonderful place to start if you don't know Ann Southam's music. If you already do it is more for you, most dedicatedly performed and exciting as well as reassuring. RIP, Ann Southam. May your music delight our ears in the centuries ahead!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ensemble Galilei, From Whence We Came

All avid listeners to "serious" music find there are times when deep, perhaps intense music needs to be balanced by something less heavy, as a refresher and to recreate a mood of glad expectation. I have a perfect antidote today, the Ensemble Galilei and their album From Whence We Came (Sono Luminus 92194).

They have been around since 1990. I reviewed their Surrounded By Angels here a while back. See the index search box. On this album as on previous ones, they give us a virtuoso chamber version of the Celtic sound. They do this by a lively program of traditional music of Ireland, Scotland and Europe, early music rearranged for the ensemble and originals. They do this with a hybrid eclectic instrumentation. Isaac Alderson plays uilleann pipes, Irish flute and whistles; Ryan McKasson plays fiddle; Kathryn Montoya plays recorders and whistles; Jackie Moran is on percussion and banjo; Sue Richards plays the Celtic harp; and Carolyn Surrick is on viola da gamba.

Whether it be an arrangement of Marin Marais's "Minuet and Caprice" or the "Largo" from a Georg Phillipp Teleman viola de gamba sonata, Irish or mainland folk music from historic collections, or an old Swedish hymn, or an original by Catherine Surrick, the ensemble gives us an ever-evocative, timeless archaic musicality that brings us in direct connection with earlier ways of sounding and hearing.

These are first-rate musicians with a sense of borderless possibilities and a beautiful sound. They give you a respite from the modern intensities of our world with music of breadth and content. This is indeed an exceptional experience!

As with many Sono Luminus releases, it comes in a two disc set--one a CD with standard stereo mixdowns and then a Blu-Ray disk with 9.1 and 5.1 surround sound.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dutilleux, Tout un Monde Lontain, Emmanuel Bertrand, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and James Gaffigan

We mark Henri Dutilleux's 100th birthday this coming January 16th. Tout un Monde Lontain (Harmonia Mundi 902209) is a disk celebrating the composer with the remarkable cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand playing the principal role on three works that fit well together. The first to consider is the "Sonata for Cello and Piano," Claude Debussy's final work which roughly coincides with Dutilleux's birth. The Dutilleux works on the program also feature the cello prominently, namely his "Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher pour violoncelle solo" from 1982 and the cello concerto "Tout un monde lontain" completed in 1970 on commission from the celebrated Msitislav Rostropovich.

Pianist Pascal Amoyel joins Ms. Bertrand for the Debussy; the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester under James Gaffigan does the honors for the concerto. Emmanuelle's technical and expressive abundance makes of the music all we might hope for. She is a formidable cellist, a gift of our times, and the music on the program brings out her remarkable brilliance fully.

The putative affiliation of Debussy and Dutilleux is made palpable with the inclusion of Claude's sonata, played with all the depth one might expect from the potent pairing of Bertrand and Amoyel. I've posted on them both, together and separately, on here before--so there are some other wonderful releases covered. Look them up.

The solo cello work is filled with plenty of substance and grit.

But it is the "Tout un monde lontain" that forms the center attraction here. Dutilleux was inspired by Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil" and the mood of mystical passion pervades the work.

This album is a significant treat for all who appreciate Dutilleux but surely also for anyone who responds to marvelous cello artistry in a modern tonal world. It is an exceptionally rewarding performance and very beautiful music at that.

Totally recommended.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christos Hatzis, Going Home Star, Truth and Reconciliation

Today a most unusual ballet score, Going Home Star, Truth and Reconciliation (Centrediscs 22015, 2-CDs), composed by Christos Hatzis for the Canada's Royal Winnepeg Ballet 75th Anniversary production choreographed by Mark Godden, script by Joseph Boyden. It centers around the development of the Indian reservation schools in the area.

Using traditional Indian music by the Northern Cree Singers, Tanya Tagaq singing traditional Inuit game songs, sound effects, electronic alterations, and the Winnepeg Symphony Orchestra under Tadeusz Biernacki, along with the recitation of Native American texts describing some native lifeway details set against the dysfunctional and often cruel treatment by the Missionary schoolmasters, we experience a disheartening story that ultimately ends in "recognition, truth and reconciliation."

The music is a dramatic pastiche of Indian song, Inuit game vocals, hymn tunes, a snippet from the "Rites of Spring" and an otherwise vibrantly moving and eclectic orchestral melange in a sort of postmodern vein.

The story revolves around Native American protagonists Annie, hairdresser and party animal and Gordon, a homeless man and trickster figure. They find each other and in turn we experience a flashback to their harrowing and bewildering childhood first in a traditional setting and then in the hands of the missionary schools. It tells the story of the desperate struggle to realize identity while negotiating their way through the White Man's institutions.

The score is understandingly subordinated to the story line of the ballet but as heard here in the recorded context has dynamic thrust and a combination of modern contemporary (tonal) elements, archaicisms and Native American authenticity, all joined together in various sequential ways.

It most certainly attracts and retains your attention with its shifting and often enough flexibly rhythmic dynamics. It holds its own in the continual juxtapositions that no doubt are ramified by the actions of the dancers in the ballet settings.

The music has a quirky kind of dramatic presence that is both inventive and at times pictorially literal in its audio backdrop to the dance events. There is much to experience in this music that stays in the mind.

In the end it may not be the essential ballet music of this yet-young century. But it is very engaging and original in its widely eclectic approach. Give it your ears.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Max Reger, Complete Organ Works, Various, 16-CDs

We have in composer Max Reger (1873-1916) the missing link between the late romanticism of Mahler and Strauss and the pioneering modernism of the Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern and Berg). There are a few others like Zemlinsky but no other who created such a gigantic output. Reger managed to combine the rigor of contrapuntal JS Bach with radically chromatic approaches that put him firmly in a new era in ways not quite like anybody else.

The Bach connection is nowhere more strongly felt than in his Complete Organ Works (Naxos 8.501601 16-CDs). The new complete opus recordings have been a labor of love beginning in the '90s through to today with volume after volume coming out bit by bit on various organs and with various players, all world-class.

The sixteen separate CDs cover everything Reger wrote for solo organ. He establishes himself as no doubt the greatest German organ composer since Bach, a clear alternative to the French School of organists which continued to flourish in his day, at times no less symphonic than they in his long form excursions, but then more at times an expansion of the multi-voiced fugal complex creator within the Bachian heritage.

Not everything in this set is a masterpiece, of course. Reger sometimes composed according to functional need, and there are some works designed for the parochial organist of medium accomplishment, arrangements of the many chorales that formed an important part of Lutheran Protestant church music. But then there are also some masterful transformations of chorales as theme and variations, as fugal subjects and the like.

There are some stunning toccata and fugues, preludes and fugues, trio sonatas and a great deal else. It is an abundance of riches with some somewhat more mundane works interspersed through the set. They are made up for by the sustained flashes of brilliance that are here in abundance.

This may be more organ music than some people are ready for, but those that wish to know the significant features of Max Reger's total output will find this very illuminating and genuinely moving. It is here that we encounter Max Reger's genius, here and in the best solo violin and cello works, the orchestral creations, the chamber works most intent on combining chromaticism and counterpoint to varying degrees.

Performances and sonics are uniformly first-rate. This box set gives great illumination to all who appreciate Reger, but also to all who appreciate the concert organ and for those who seek a proto-modernism which is also a glowing tribute and updating of the Bach heritage. If this feels like a part of your musical calling, treat yourself to this abundant fecundity by all means!

Friday, December 11, 2015

R. Nathaniel Dett, My Cup Runneth Over, The Complete Piano Works, Clipper Erickson

Afro-American composers in the US in the early modern period? From the jazz realm we of course have many, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington come to mind readily and happily. There is of course Scott Joplin . . . and William Grant Still from the classical realm. Now we have the chance to hear the music of another, Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), his complete solo piano music, on the new two-CD set My Cup Runneth Over (Navona 6013). Clipper Erickson takes on the music as the pianist and brings it all to life for us.

The music in first blush has the tang of impressionism in its harmonic and melodic intricacies, but ultimately there is a depth of originality that comes out as you listen further.

He was a pianist, teacher, choir leader, poet and writer. His book The Emancipation of Negro Music was well received and won him a literary prize at Harvard in 1920. He was the first Afro-American to graduate from Oberlin, concentrating on piano and composition, in 1908, and got his Masters at Eastman in 1931. His career was distinguished, yet somehow his music has fallen by the wayside until now.

His first composition efforts reflected the salon style then current but also incorporated ragtime and dance music elements. But he experienced a kind of awakening when "suddenly it seemed I heard again the frail voice of my long departed grandmother calling across the years; and in a rush of emotion that stirred my spirit to its very center, the meaning of the songs which had given her soul such peace was revealed to me."

From that point on his music often incorporated traditional Afro-American folk elements, from spirituals, which he made great efforts to preserve and promote, and other roots.

There are contrasts to be heard with the deeply involved treatment of such elements in the "Eight Bible Vignettes" of 1941-43 and the more straightforward Joplinesque rag treatment of "After the Cakewalk" from 1900.

We in the end get a composer whose voice, though perhaps stilled for years, seems right for renewed attention and revival. R. Nathaniel Dett in his mature period is a fully individual, fully original composer of his time. The two CDs of My Cup Runneth Over give us a composer of stature. Thanks to Clipper Erickson for providing us with fine performances and resurrecting Dett's music for us to appreciate anew. Perhaps now we can hear Dett's choral compositions?

Very recommended!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Haydn, The Creation, Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society, Soloists

Joseph Haydn had been dead only six years when the Handel and Haydn Society formed (1815) in Boston. They first performed part one of Haydn's monumental oratorio The Creation on Christmas of that year. As part of their Bicentennial season this year Harry Christophers and the Society performed the work live. It is this live version that we happily have on a new two-CD set (CORO 6135).

It is the English version we hear, based on Genesis and Milton's Paradise Lost. Both English and German versions were published under Haydn's supervision in 1800. As Harry Christophers comments in the liner notes, Haydn "excels himself allowing soloists, chorus and period orchestra to revel in vivid word painting both vocal and instrumental." Christophers and the amassed choral and orchestral forces of the Handel and Haydn Society give us an exaltedly expressive performance that is in the period tradition and near ideal in its elated depth of expression.

This is arguably Haydn's finest work for voices and orchestra, inspired by the Handel of the "Messiah" for its grand sweep and melodic genius. Haydn remains himself yet engages the then not-so-old tradition with a Haydn-esque brilliance.

Soloists Sarah Tynan, Jeremy Ovenden and Matthew Brook, the choral and orchestral forces give us superlative performances. The joy of creation comes through with the precision and period perfection we come to expect from Christophers.

This is a disk set that provides us with the balance and musical thrust of the work as Haydn envisioned it. Like the Christopher/Handel Haydn recording of the Messiah last year (see the search box above to find my review) it is in the period tradition, not overblown with too large an orchestra or chorus (which was the practice last century) and more brio than sentimental, just right for our time and Haydn's. It is one of those triumphs that makes it essential listening. Happy 200th to the Handel and Haydn Society!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Monteverdi in Mantua: The Genius of the Vespers, Beal, Christophers & the Sixteen

On February 20, 2015 I reviewed here a striking performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 by the Sixteen under Harry Christophers. Monteverdi was the Italian early Baroque master who revolutionized the music by new expressive means and masterful brilliance. As one of the music texts I am always reading reminds me, his innovative use of monody and harmonized unified melody lines allowed him to go beyond strict polyphony for a new sonance, though he was also a master of the latter. The Vespers was one of his masterpieces, along with the operas and the madrigals. It exemplifies the very expressive combination of all the styles for a sacred work that no doubt startled the Duke and his retinue with its originality and stunning depth.

The Sixteen's version of the Vespers is a triumph of beauty and authentic period singularity.

Now we have a DVD documentary originally presented on BBC, Monteverdi in Mantua: the Genius of the Vespers (CORO--available as a single DVD or in a deluxe set with the Sixteen's 2-CD recording of the work). It is a moving, hour long exploration into the circumstances of Monteverdi in this period, working under a tyrannical Duke of Mantua.

Simon Russell Beale presents the narrative, the Sixteen and Harry Christopher present musical excerpts from the Vespers and along with Beale give us excellent insight into the music, the challenge of a proper performance and the intention of the composer to create a commanding sacred work in the hopes of finding better employment.

The insights of Christophers and the vocalists/instrumentalists of the Sixteen along with Beale's illuminating narrative and the Mantuan setting lead to an extraordinarily enlightening program. There is an additional bonus segment not a part of the BBC program that documents the recording of the two-CD Vespers release. It is very enlightening as well.

If you already have the Vespers CDs, the DVD is available separately. If you don't, the CDs are nicely packaged with the DVD in a deluxe version.

I found the documentary very moving in its biographical narrative and a treasure on period performance practice in the hands of Christophers and the Sixteen. Anyone serious about early music and Monteverdi will no doubt find all of this indispensable fare!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Thomas Juneau, Visions Eternal

Every collection of compositions has a trajectory, a way of proceeding. It certainly is true of the disk up for today, Visions Eternal (Ravello 7913), a set of four choral compositions by the American composer-conductor Thomas Juneau.

These are sacred works in a tonal-modern realm, looking backward to early music practices as it all gets rejuvinated in a contemporary framework. It features the Summit Chorale, the Juneau Vocal Alliance, and ranges from a capella to harp or organ accompaniment, with in the end-piece compositions adding the Scarlet Knight Brass and Percussion Ensemble. Juneau conducts.

The music is exalting or alternately contemplative. "Gaudette" is based on the text from a 16th-century Christmas Carol and has an infectious odd-meter quality; "Te Deum," "Five Latin Motets" and "Magnum Mysterium" are based on Latin liturgical or otherwise sacred texts of earlier times.

All of the music is has ethereal elements, atmospherically choral in its sure treatment of voices, and movingly composed. The performances are quite respectable and generally well done.

Juneau is a fine craftsman with an inspired way with massed vocalists. It is a compendium that feels right for this holiday season and the wintertime in general.

Anyone who enjoys angelic choirs and vocal ensembles that channel the sacred music traditions in modern ways will find this much to their liking. Recommended.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Stathis Skandalidis Plays Gilbert Isbin

The lute goes back to the Middle Ages, as most everyone knows, with a body of compositions that spans through to the Baroque era. After that the number of compositions diminishes considerably and the guitar takes over as the primary vehicle.

The scarcity of contemporary compositions for lute is belied by the recent album Stathis Skandalidis Plays Gilbert Isbin (Tern 007). Happily, Isbin arranges 3 Old Flemish Songs and then furnishes Skandalidis with 20 brief new compositions.

Isbin straddles ancient and modern worlds in these lively pieces. They retain something of the intricacies and multi-part articulations of early music, but there is an inventive contemporary stance that clearly identifies the pieces as of the modern era.

Skandalidis hails from Greece and enjoys a busy schedule of concertizing on lute and guitar throughout Europe. Isbin himself is a Belgian lutenist and guitarist with more than 200 compositions for lute or guitar and ensemble to his credit. Of his numerous recordings this is the latest.

The combination of Skandalides' exceptional abilities and Isbin's old-in-new modernist creativity makes for a joy of a listen. Together they extend the lute's possibilities while giving us very idiomatic music that takes full advantage of the body of technical approaches from the tradition yet speaks to our contemporary sensibilities.

This is music that grows with every listen--sophisticated yet extraordinarily accessible and attractive in every way.

Highly recommended!

Friday, December 4, 2015

December Celebration, New Carols by Seven American Composers

Classical music listeners who want more than the standard holiday music fare don't always find a great deal to chose from. Of course there is Handel, Bach, early music, Pavarotti and other famed singers in holiday programs, various cantatas and Gregorian Chant, Liszt, Saint-Saens, but of contemporary modern compositions (and arrangements), there isn't much. Britten. Menotti. Cannot think of a whole lot else. This year there is something truly new in that realm, however, that is worth your time: December Celebration, New Carols by Seven American Composers (Pentatone 5186 537).

It features soprano Lisa Delan and baritone Lester Lynch along with the Volti Chorus, Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra and Steven Bailey, organ and piano, all under the direction of Dawn Harms.

We get some very familiar carols scattered among modern-contemporary ones. So there is a nice arrangement of "Silent Night" (Gordon Getty) and some other chestnuts like "Good King Merrily on High" (aka Ding Dong...) but mostly new music from Mark Adams, Jake Heggie, Joan Morris & William Bolcom, David Garner, Luna Pearl Woolf, Gordon Getty and John Corigliano.

Delan's vibrato takes a little getting used to but after a bit that melds into the overall performances, which are very respectable and spirited.

This (of course) is not avant contemporary but tonal and carol-centric with a little nutmeg for your egg nog. It is a Christmas album that needs close listening at first, because after all the music is mostly very new. But after a couple of listenings it opens up and you find much to appreciate.

Doubtless this will not garner the performers a Grammy. but it is very well done and in the end gives you blessed relief from the continually recycling standards. There is much to like. A balm for jaded ears, this is. Recommended for good ears grown weary on the usual.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Peter Garland, After the Wars, Sarah Cahill

Piano music in a radical tonality mode is what comes through nicely on Peter Garland's 20-minute, specially priced EP After the Wars (Cold Blue 0044). The program consists of four brief interrelated, visceral, poetic tone sounding works for solo piano, played characteristically and with elan by Sarah Cahill.

The titles of the works give some idea of where the music is coming from: "Spring View: The nation is ruined, but the mountains and rivers remain (after Tu Fu)," "Summer grass/all that remains/of young warriors' dreams (after Basho)," "Occasional Poem on an Autumn's Day: When I am at peace, I let everything go (After Ch'eng Hao)," and "A snowy morning/and smoke from the kitchen roof--it is good (after Buson)."

A local world, then, after the wars have ended, all is still. That is the feeling one gets from the music. It takes sheer pleasure in the combination of tones, yet the expression goes beyond a pure sounding to evoke moments of peace through all the four seasons, peace and loss, then transcendence.

This is piano music that comes out of Satie, tonal Cage and Feldman, through to its own territory, in a radical tonality vein typical of the Cold Blue label yet very much in its own right.

It is a beautiful evocation that relies not on the typical linear connectedness of standard melody but rather has simultaneity that arises from piano soundings that link with a sort of an abstract disconnect of fragile tonal events which nonetheless have poetic flow when experienced together.

There is beauty, a spacious unraveling in no hurry to get to an end point, yet each movement stays a little while and then is gone.

This is another very entrancing program from Cold Blue. Peter Garland weaves a web of expressive, muted magic and we readily fall under its spell.

Very recommended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Vierne, 12 Preludes, Solitude, Nocturne, Muza Rubackyte

Luis Vierne (1870-1937) is best known of course as a key figure in the French symphonic organ school that followed in the wake of Franck. But what of his other music? It turns out that around two-thirds of his output is not for organ, but rather come to us as song cycles, orchestral, chamber and piano works. Some of those solo piano pieces are aptly performed on a recent release 12 Preludes, Solitude, Nocturne (Brilliant 95154) by Muza Rubackyte.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that these pieces have a post-Lisztian, pre-Scriabinesque sort of feeling to them. They are sometimes rather demanding technically, fully flourishing late-romantic, pre-modern showcases.

Ms. Rubackyte is well-disposed toward the works and temperamentally right for the rolling arpeggios and melodically expressive nature of them.

These were all composed around the time of WWI.

They are all generally through-composed, fantasia-like works that have structure, a feeling of spontaneity and a fair amount of chromaticism. Once you realize that these are mature-period Vierne works (assuming you know his organ music) it does make some stylistic sense. If he had written these for organ there would be of course less late romantic flourishes typical of the piano in the day and then the structure and harmonic forms taken on would seem typical of Vierne the organ master.

The fact that they are most idiomatically pianistic is fitting, but in other words this is not a radically different Vierne, but rather a consistent one that adapts to pianistic means to express what he has in mind.

The four movements of "Solitude" and the concluding "Nocturne, Op.35, No.3" are the most poetic of the pieces here, at times less virtuoso-oriented, at times the most moodily chromatic, sometimes almost impressionistic. And so I find myself especially attracted to them.

But all-in-all the entire program has music that is far from uninteresting; it is very well played and worthy of your ears. Those who appreciate Vierne's organ music will find these pieces especially interesting. It may not be an essential disc for those not already familiar with Vierne, but it sheds more light on his place in the early modern music world while also providing the listener with some very good piano music.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Westminster Concert Bell Choir, An English Christmas

I love bell sounds, whether it be in the form of carillon, multiple cathedral bells, or handbell-ringer groups. So when I heard the Westminster Concert Bell Orchestra's latest album An English Christmas (Westminster Choir College 1510) I was entranced. The outfit is the largest of its kind, in terms of range of bells anyway, and under the direction of Kathleen Ebling Shaw they sound phenomenal. The group is a part of the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, USA.

The bell choir for this album selected a nice grouping of old English carols, some quite familiar such as "Ding, Dong, Merrily on High" or "Good King Wencesles," but also some unfamiliar to most US listeners, such as the "Sussex" and "Wexford" Carols. There is occasional organ, choir and solo vocal parts, etc., but the bells are out front continually as one would expect.

The modern arrangements are quite well done and the orchestra sounds great. This is a beautiful record for those with good musical instincts. It is a perfect album for its sonic glow, just the right sort of music for those with jaded ears who need something different and moving for the holiday season. The old carols still have some life in them yet when played like this! Very recommended, especially for those who associate bells with the season. Ring out the old!