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Friday, December 30, 2016

Gyorgy Kurtag, Complete String Quartets, Quatuor Molinari

When it's a matter of deserving living high modernist composers, Gyorgy Kurtag (b. 1926) belongs up there though he does not always get his due. Enough of his music, happily, has seen the light of day in the recorded medium that we can gauge his merits regardless.

Today's selection is a good example. His Complete String Quartets (ATMA Classique ACD2 2705) comes to us in a major new recording by Quatuor Molinari.  His quartet work is sufficiently terse and concentrated that the entire output fits on a single disk, covering the period from 1959 through 2009. Like Webern, Kurtag does not provide a single superfluous note. His complex and highly colored string language is as dense and purposeful as it is memorable and alive.

Quatuor Molinari presents the works in chronological order and puts in all the precision and expressivity the works demand. You can hear a progressive movement beyond serialism to something more intensely personal.

The "Quartet No. 1, Op. 1" (1959) was a breakthrough from a frustrating period of blockage. He transcended it by working with only two or three notes at a time. There results a music of great intensity.

The "Hommage a Andreas Milhaly, Twelve Microludes, Op. 13" (1977-78), uses quotations and an even more terse approach to create the twelve miniatures. "Officium breve in memorium Andreae Szervansky, op. 28" gives us a radical brevity of 15 movements in three minutes.

The "Aus der Ferne III" (1991) and V (1999) are from a series of  tributes to the music publisher Alfred Schlee, who among other things heroically kept numerous modern music scores out of the hands of the Nazis (and sure destruction) in WWII. They show an increasing freedom of language, notably cello pedal tones and "literal" depictive expressions.

"Hommage a Jacob Obrecht" (2004-05) pays tribute to composer Jacob Bali and his fondness for Renaissance polyphony with a deft conflation of early music with the modern.

"Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 44" (2005) is a major mature work via six brief but impactful expressions.

Finally "Arioso" (2009) pays tribute to Walter Levin and the LaSalle Quartet, who staunchly advocated new music composers for more then 40 years. The music is "in the manner of Alban Berg."

And that concludes the program. By concentrating on just the Quartets and presenting them chronologically Quatuor Molinari gives us pinpoint insights into the development of Kurtag's music from a terse rigor to a profoundly free but no less terse expressivity.

These are beautiful performances of significant works. The release is a must for high modernists. And a fitting last post for 2016. Onward!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

David Rakowski, Stolen Moments, Sarah Bob, Amy Briggs, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

Stolen Moments (BMOP Sound 1048) gives us two recent works of a modern and rhythmically very lively cast by David Rakowski (b. 1958), a  pupil of Milton Babbitt who has gone on to develop a very abstracted yet melodically-harmonically communicative style, not Serialist per se so much as post-Serialist and eclectically beyond category.

The title work (2008/2010) is almost a concerto for piano and orchestra but in the end gives the orchestra as much or more of a say in the musical pathways that fit together so intricately well. The idea was to take elements of modern jazz and reframe them in new music terms. Pianist Sarah Bob does a fine job with her complex piano part. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose handles its part with its usual impeccable sense of form and detail.

The same could certainly be said of the "Piano Concerto No. 2" (2011) and its even more complex and demanding modernist sprawl of jagged abstractions and beautifully communicative down-to-earth contrasting phraseology. Amy Briggs tackles her part heroically well, providing the essential high energy level so important to this work's successful performance.

We come out of this program with a rabid appreciation of David Rakowski as a high modernist who can and does incorporate some so-called vernacular elements for two brilliant cocktails of flavor and color.

It is yet another ravishing release in the BMOP series. Very much recommended.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Janacek, String Quartets Nos. 1- 2, Quartetto Energie Nove

I regard Leos Janacek's String Quartets Nos. 1-2 (RSI 7708) as old friends. My first exposure to these tabula rasa gems was on an old Czech LP and until forced relocation last July and the loss of most of my LPs it admirably took its place in the listening rotation. The new World Premiere recording of the Barenreiter Critical Edition by the Quartetto Energie Nove has been filling my ears for several weeks and though I first preferred that old Czech version I am getting quite fond of this new one.

Included as a bonus is Jarmil Burhauser's arrangement for string quartet of the solo piano opus "On An Overgrown Path" (Book One) and I must say it gives the Janacek (1854-1928)  lover something "new" for quartet. If you didn't already know the piece you would not suspect it was not originally meant for the quartet. All sounds right in Burhauser's arrangement.

The String Quartets are primo Janacek, giving us a good deal of that uncanny combination of modernism, Eastern European folk strains, and an enormous memorability as only Janacek and his thematic brilliance can pull off.

Quartetto Energie Nove excels in a sort of folk brio, an almost Gypsy-like interpretation of the music at key points. They bring out that element remarkably well and though perhaps my old LP sometimes brought the sheer beauty of some passages out more so than Quartetto Energie Nove, after a few hearings it is the latter's approach that in the end sounds right to me.

This is a performance that will be hard to top. The addition of "On An Overgrown Path" makes the release all that much more appealing.

There are no quartets quite like this and Quartetto Energie Nove give us beautiful readings of the new Critical Edition. Don't hesitate!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ustvolskaya, Silvestrov, Kancheli, Works for Piano and Orchestra, Elisaveta Blumina, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra

Today's offering is a fascinating mix of Works for Piano and Orchestra (Grand Piano GP 678) by three modern Russian composers, Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006), Valentine Silvestrov (b. 1937) and Giya Kancheli (b. 1935). Elisaveta Blumina does the honors with the various piano solo parts; Thomas Sanderling leads the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Altogether they make a convincing case for the four works represented here.

Perhaps the most astonishing of all of them is Ustvolskaya's "Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani," written in 1946 in her last year at the Leningrad Conservatory. It is a highly dramatic, highly engaging work not nearly as brash and dissonant as her later piano works were to be, but stunning in its beautiful severity. Regular readers may recall that I reviewed another version of this work, by pianist Patricia Hast and Ensemble Galina/Peter Leopold this past October 17 on these pages. That recording also included a rare chamber orchestra version of Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 2." The Hast Ustvolskaya may have a slight edge over the Blumina here, but of course the present disk is an all Russian, all modern affair so I would say both are indispensable.

Moving along then we have Silvestrov's "Four Postludes" (2004) next up on the current program. It is a first recording of some mostly very quiet, enchanting postmodern fare. Though it is not specifically named as a nocturnal, it surely has that sort of uncanny atmosphere.

The Kancheli work, "Sio for String Orchestra, Piano and Percussion" (1998), also a First Recording, gives us a kind of folk hymn as the principal theme. Quietude is interrupted with outbursts of contrasting diatonics and somewhat more strident modern flourishes. The tender and the almost brutal alternate with quite vividly depictive tone color painting. It is imaginative and expressive in an original way, somehow very Russian at that.

Finally we get the short concluding "Hymn 2001" by Silvestrov. This is unabashed lyricism with a pronounced romantic bent, nearly Mahleresque, yet with profound modern touches.

So that is the size of this very worthwhile, contentful release. Both Blumina and Sanderling/Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra put a good deal of care and commitment into the realizations. The results are quite exemplary. Bravo!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Pierre de Manchicourt, Missa Reges terrae, The Choir of St. Luke in the Fields, David Shuler

The art of imitative counterpoint in the right hands is labyrinthine and multi-refracted, a kind of minimalism that never quite repeats in its fullness and ever-overlapping movement, yet is build upon shifting repetitive blocks of sound. A master of the classic form of imitative counterpoint is one Pierre de Manchicourt (c.1510-1564), who thrived as a principal composer of the Franco-Flemish School of the second third of the 16th century. Perhaps because his style of composing was considered old fashioned in his last years (cf. Bach) his music has largely languished in obscurity until today.

Missa Reges terrae (MSR Classics 1632), a full disk of his choral works nicely performed by the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields under David Shuler, gives us a vivid snapshot of the brilliant interlocking style of Manchicourt which includes the World Premiere of the title piece as well as a number of equally appealing shorter works.

The performances are bracing, pinpont realizations of the music, hauntingly beautiful and glowingly soundstaged.

If we are at last able to hear Pierre de Manchicourt with open ears, it is because the times are right for his music at last. It has emerged from the archival darkness of 500 years to assume its rightful place in our musical pantheon.

Highly recommended!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Peteris Vasks, String Quartets 2 & 5, Spikeru String Quartet

Peteris Vasks (b, 1946) a Latvian (Russian Soviet) composer of stature creates music he hopes will console and inspire the downtrodden--the ill, the poor, the harassed and harried among us. In that he does with music what perhaps his Baptist minister father did with words. The liner notes quote the composer at some length and give us a clear vision of the man. That rings true of the music on this, the Spikeru String Quartet's recording of his String Quartets 2 & 5 (Wergo 7329 2).

The music is mostly tonal, but also aleatoric and ultra-modern in brief passages that depict chaos and evil, beautifully folk-like and lyrical all at once.

The Quartet No. 5 begins with complex multi-stops and a dramatic folk-hymn feeling. It blossoms forth into a spectacular sonic harmonic world, then almost Beethovenesque in its dramatic, nearly breathtaking unfolding. The second movement begins in hushed sadness, fragile, lyric, and stays there for the whole. There is a healing quality here, yes.

Quartet No. 2 is a moving quasi-pastoral work subtitled "Summer Tunes." There is a seriously moving movement representing the coming into bloom, a gentle movement of bird song (first as if heard from a distance, then nearer) and a final elegaic conclusion of sadness and hope.

These beautiful works make one want to hear the other quartets at once, thanks to the Spikeru's loving attention to every detail of the music and the sheer persuasiveness of the works themselves.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Stanford Legacy, Stanford, Clarke, Ireland, Martin Outram, Julian Rolton

Several weeks ago we explored the choral music of Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Today we light upon the chamber element of the nearly forgotten composer, with three sonatas for viola and piano by Stanford and two of his illustrious pupils.

The Stanford Legacy (Nimbus Alliance 6334) showcases Martin Outram and Julian Rolton on viola and piano, respectively, and their strong, earthy interpretive acumen on display for the three substantial compositions that make up the program.

These Late Romantic-Early Modern sonatas are powerfully charged with depth of feeling but not of sentiment. Each has complex thematic virtuoso unfoldings that sound fresh, never cliched. This is music not designed as superficial salon baubles, but rather as earnestly serious fare for connoisseurs.

Stanford's influence as a teacher of composition was an important part of his legacy. He taught Bridge, Holst, Bliss, Vaughan Williams and, especially relevant for this album, Rebecca Clarke and John Ireland.

The Stanford sonata represented here was originally written for clarinet and piano in 1903 and was arranged for the viola as solo instrument by Henry Waldo Warner with the composer's approval in 1914. It shows obliquely Stanford's indebtedness to Brahms but with its own inventive thematic developmental path.

The Rebecca Clarke sonata gives us a rewarding view of the budding confidence of the composer and violist in 1919, who wrote over 100 works before marriage in 1944 put an end to it. There are whimsical passages, a rhapsodic depth and a hint of modernism in her chromaticism and sometimes harmonically advanced vocabulary.

John Ireland's First Violin Sonata of 1908 (revised in 1917 and again in 1944) in its re-arrangement for viola by Outram concludes the program with adventuresome fare that though often rhapsodic like the others has a strong pull towards post-romanticism while retaining a very lyric stance.

Outram and Rolton go a long ways to give us an expressively deep reading of these three sonatas. In the end we return to these works with real pleasure.

I imagine all modern era Anglophiles will be drawn positively to this album. Yet it will please anyone looking for late romantic chamber music of stature.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Elizabeth Hilliard, Sea to the West

Dublin's Soprano Elizabeth Hilliard has a wonderfully full voice, a great range and the musical imagination to bring life to contemporary ambient soundscapes. Her recent album Sea to the West (Metier 28551) shows this admirably well, in a program of six works for solo voice plus occasional multitracking and electroacoustic enhancement.

New works mostly from this century provide thoughtful ear fare, with two works apiece by Christopher Fox ("Sea to the West" [2014] and "Magnification" [1978-80] and Grainne Mulvey ("Phonology Garden" [2013] and "Eternity is Now" [2008]) plus single opuses by Linda Buckley ("Numarimur" [2009]), and David Bremner ("logic ballad #2: The guarded tourist makes the guide the test" [2013]).

The only given is Elizabeth's flexibly alive voice and a sense of open presence. Every work is evocative of association of place or earth, presence and poetic memory, all taken in its widest sense.

Time seems to stand still in the suspended vocal world unveiled. This is introspective music that puts the listener in a ravishing but ultimately spare and rarified zone.

The composers and Elizabeth's wonderful voice make it all work. This is not contemporary fireworks to awe the soul so much as an intimate hour or so with poetic depth.

To the thinkers and musically sensitive beings out there, this is a captivating change of pace.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Erik Griswold, Ecstatic Descent, for Prepared Piano

Nietschke's division of art into the Apollonian, or the even-keeled, the stately and perhaps, reserved, and the Dionysian, the ecstatic, orgiastic, the exuberantly unleashed, can be illuminating when applied to music. John Cage's prepared piano music might be seen fruitfully as the former, unwinding at a steady and understated pace. Erik Griswold's prepared piano opus Ecstatic Descent (Cold Blue Music CB0047), on the other hand, is firmly in the Dionysian camp, a beautiful torrent of exotic timbred notes.

For those new to all this the prepared piano was essentially invented by Cage by inserting metal, rubber and other sonically altering objects on or between the strings to give the piano a radically transformed sound more like a percussion orchestra than not. His series of prepared piano works from the late '30s on were breakthrough works that first definitively identified him as an important American composer.

Through the years others took on this configuration in various ways. Erik Griswold gives us his very own take--with a rousingly manic, key-centered adventure fascinating to hear. Halfway through there are brief pauses now and again that re-situate the tumult and give it definition.

The 45-minute work has so rich a cornucopia of sound colors that it never ceases to fascinate. There is not a minute too much. All lays out fittingly, with a fresh ambiance that neither relaxes nor wearies the close listener.

Kudos! This is a blast.

Oh, and here is the link to the MP3 if you are interested:

Monday, December 19, 2016

Enrique Granados, Maria del Carmen, Soloists, Wexford Chorus, Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus, Max Bragado-Darman

19th and 20th Century Spanish  Nationalist classical music, when done well, liberates the tonality from its pan-European shackles to give us music both folkloric and for its time, modern. That is certainly true of the music of Enrique Granados (1867-1916), a relatively early but very accomplished exponent.

We can hear this readily and consistently in his opera Maria del Carmen (Naxos 8.660144-45 2-CDs) as performed in the Wexford Festival Opera Production of 2003. It was written fairly early in his career, premiered in 1898 and after mixed reviews and a number of performances was not revived again until 1935. Part of that had to do with the Catalan contingent, who did not feel it was Catalan enough (the action takes place in rural Murcia). Yet Granados rightfully considered it an unqualified success aesthetically.

It was his first stage work and it speaks to us today directly through its lyric dramaticism and beautiful adaptation of traditional sounding rustic Spanish melodic-harmonic strains.

The present recording is very solid and convincing in the hands of Max Bragado-Darman, a host of soloists, the Wexford Festival Opera Chorus and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus.

Diana Venonese, in the principal role, takes some getting used to for her vibrato-heavy explosiveness, but one finds oneself adjusting in time. The production as a whole is first-rate and gives us a vibrant reading of the extraordinarily fetching work.

Anyone taken by Granados in particular and Spanish Nationalism in general will I believe readily respond to the work. Admirably well constructed, movingly lyric and emotionally direct, in is vintage Granados at his best.

Very recommended.

Friday, December 16, 2016

John Taverner, Missa Wellensis, Wells Cathedral Choir, Matthew Owens

John Tavener (1944-2013) is one of the most striking choral composers of our time.  Like Arvo Part, he exemplifies an old-in-the-new transformation of early music influences to make something different--modern and very personal. In Taverner's case plainchant and especially Russian Orthodox chant are important models from which he freely and creatively draws.

We can hear some beautiful sacred choral music along these lines on the album  Missa Wellensis (Signum Classics 442) featuring the Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens. Four of the works, including the title piece, enjoy world premiere recordings. All eleven mostly short works are given definitive, angelic treatment by the choir.

The homophonic influences of Orthodox chant and Organum are apparent throughout. As with much of Taverner's choral music the archaic and the contemporary form the basis for his sensitive brilliance. These are the late works (2010-13), written after a debilitating heart attack (2009) forced him into convalescence and ultimately a determination to boil down the music into a sacred essence. As the liners note, these last works proffer an austere music, indeed, but there is warmth and a penetrating sonic depth to it all in the end.

The "Missa Wellensis" and the "Preces and Responses" were specially commissioned for the Wells Cathedral and so have a pedigree that the choir readily makes present in their performances. But all of these works get detailed attention and sonic care.

Anyone seeking modern choral music with ancient roots, anyone interested in Taverner's last works or who do not know his music as a whole would do well to get this volume. It is in every way a celebration of the beauty and direct celestial inspiration of his final musical vision.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Arthur Lourie, Solo Piano Works, Moritz Ernst, 3-CD Set

The coldest "feeling" day of the year here raises questions about reality that the weatherman glibly ignores. It "feels" like x (wind-chill factor), yet it isn't. Similarly to say that the Solo Piano Works (Capriccio 3-CD C5281) by Arthur Lourie (1891-1966) "feel" somewhat akin to a post-romantic melange of late Scriabin, something of classic Debussy, proto-Messiaen and on the other hand a rather neo-classical conciseness, it is not so much a question of proof, which helps little as does the actual temperature on a day like today.

A statistical analysis of harmonic and melodic sequences would lead you into a no-man's land of correlations or the lack, which is to say that "feel" and "actuality" may be two different things, and the discrepancy between the two makes for originality, or it does in part. To map out the actual grammatic sequence of a great poem is not necessarily any guarantee of the poem's deep structure and meaning. Thankfully my job here is not to supply the reader with endless tables of sequence, for in the end we listeners go more with "feel" than anything else, and that nebulous territory beyond actuality is what in part gives us pleasure and makes listening a very personal thing, doesn't it?

All that explains something of why I find Arthur Lourie's solo piano music in the hands of  Moritz Ernst a thing of beauty. The comprehensive 3-CD set takes us from 1908 and his Debussy-Scriabin period through to a more modernist parallel-Messiaenic phase and finally to a crisp neo-classicism and a further beyond by 1938. The set ends with a somewhat extended work for piano and narrator (Oskar Ansull) ("Death's Mistake"), which is the more interesting if you know German well, less so otherwise.

In the end  Lourie's love for, and immersion in the sensuous properties of the solo pianoforte mark him as a composer of merit and a deeply pianistic poeticism.  His stylistically varying output may have made him difficult to pigeonhole during his lifetime, but we can listen today with no expectations and experience the music as a set of wonderful surprises.

So for the piano lover out there, here is one you will linger on and continue to uncover joyously unexpected "feels" that run deep. Very recommended for all that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Weinberg, Symphony No. 17, "Memory," Vladimir Lande, Siberian State Orchestra

The emergence of  Mieczyslaw Weinberg's music since his death in 1996 has been one of the remarkable events of our time. All-but-forgotten at the end of his life, his Polish-Jewish origins, migration to Russia when the Nazis invaded his homeland, his friendship with Shostakovich, who was an unflagging champion of his music, trouble with Stalin and the social realism music police until Stalin's death, his rehabilitation and greatest period from that point forward, all are the stuff of myth yet at times had to have been as harrowingly real for him as a living nightmare. He continued to compose fruitfully no matter what he faced.

And now today we have another significant release, featuring the powerful, bitter turbulence of the first of a trilogy of WWII symphonies, Symphony No. 17, "Memory" (Naxos 8.573565), a work that in its power, drama and scope fits in well with Shostakovich's 7th and Prokofiev's 5th as the definitive Russian war symphonies.

Weinberg's full subtitle to the work was "In memory of the fallen in the Great Patriotic War." In spite of ultimate victory the Russian death toll was among the highest of the allies, and the music reflects what many no doubt felt, a terrific sense of loss.

Vladimir Lande and the Siberian Symphony Orchestra give us an impassioned reading, haunting in its great depth, meditative introspection and labyrinthine expression. The sonics are excellent and the performance never flags.

As a bonus we get an early '50s work written during a time when his life was in danger, principally for his Jewishness. The "Orchestral Suite" no doubt was written in an attempt to satisfy the precepts of social realism. Yet the first three movements have a  modern and at times Jewish harmonic-melodic core behind the "lighthearted" veneer that no doubt might not have pleased the censors. This recording is a first, and it is suspected too that it is the very first performance. It is by no means a landmark work yet it is fascinating and contrasts with the symphony dramatically.

All-in-all this is a valuable addition to the Weinberg discography, mostly for the vibrant reading of the 17th. It might not be my first choice for an introduction to the composer (see the index box for other releases I have reviewed here), but it will no doubt be welcomed by enthusiasts like myself. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lara Downes, America Again

"Let America be America again," wrote Langston Hughes in 1938. It was an America in Depression, facing war, an America where the color of your skin, your religion, your class or your ethnicity set you apart as an "undesirable," yet an America where all dreamed of better. We've come a ways since that time. Now some of us seek to "make America great again," yet what that means divides us, in that there is in one camp a kind of pre-FDR or at least a pre-present vision of a time when there truly was despair, just as perhaps there is now, where some prospered while others went without. Do we really want that again? Or do we want that to continue? All will say no, but how, then? Where, then are we headed? What will power do for the powerless?

Pianist Lara Downes pays tribute to the Hughes vision and Martin Luther King's Dream in a volume of beautiful Americana on America Again (Sono Luminus  92207). It is a music of hope and despair born of those terrible years and perhaps a bit before, folk songs like "Shenandoah," classical modern works that have the earthiness of outdoor and everyday America by Morton Gould, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and select others, and choice Jazz-Afro-American classics by Duke Ellington ("Melancholia"), Scott Joplin ("Gladiolus Rag"), or the hybrid of Jazz-Popular, like Nina Simone's arrangement of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy," and Art Tatum's arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."

We find in all this music a world surely not "great" for those who were its victims. Yet the music is touching, beautiful, transcendent.

So rhis is an album with a program, in the literal sense. It is music with a message of hope, music written when that was most needed. It celebrates an America where many concerned themselves with articulating the so-called American Dream, and at the same time set about devising means to make it so.

The music goes beyond all that to express its own value, AS MUSIC. Lara Downes does a marvelous job making of this music a pianistic triumph. To her we must tip our collective hats in appreciation. For the music wears wonderfully well in her hands. Bravo!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Dutilleux, Orchestral Works, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot

Henri Dutilleux departed from this earth in 2013 at the considerable age of 97. He left behind a body of works that marks him as one of France's most original and lucid modern composers, a singular voice of our times.

Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony have done us a great service in recording some of his finest Orchestral Works in a three-CD set (Seattle Symphony Media 1013) that gives us beautifully definitive versions of some ten works spanning his entire career.

We are treated in this set to the "Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2," "Tout un monde lontain," "The Shadows of Time," "Metaboles," "Violin Concerto, L'arbre des songes," "Sur le meme accord," "Les citations," "Mystere de l'instant" and "Timbres, espace, movement."

Each work carefully and vividly sets up and develops its own sound color landscape that is informed by modernist influences through Messiaen but makes of it all something utterly idiomatic, original, personal.

Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in each case enter into the essence of the work and recreate the brilliance lurking within Dutilleux's masterful orchestrations.

In the end we experience a retrospective that methodically builds a case for Dutilleux's importance far beyond what any single work could do.

The results are remarkable and stunning. No one with an interest in mature modernism and French sound color can afford to miss this set. Ravishing!

Friday, December 9, 2016

New South American Discoveries, The Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya

There is always something new under the sun when it comes to modern classical music. Today, we contemplate something new and extraordinary in New South American Discoveries (Harmonia Mundi 907670), as performed with zeal and spirit by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

On it we are treated to eight characteristic symphonic works by as many living South American composers, who are generally as concerned with local musical elements (though not always in a central thematic role) as they are with a modern outlook.

So we find ourselves immersed happily in the music of Victor Agudelo (Colombia), Sebastian Vergara (Chile), Diego Luzuriaga (Ecuador), Diego Vega (Colombia), Sebastian Errazuriz (Chile), Augustin Fernandez (Bolivia), Jorge Villavicencio Grossman (Peru) and Antonio Gervasoni (Peru).

The time passes quickly as each work reveals itself in lively fashion in the hands of Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Orchestra. This is music that does not hearken back so much as look forward in dramatic and at times exciting ways. There is nothing but good music to be had. All eight works show us a South America as vitally new as it is delightful.

Heartily recommended.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Deems Taylor, Three Century Suite, The Lost Music of Deems Taylor, Volume II

Who was Deems Taylor? He first gained fame as a composer, but was well known as a critic and the radio voice of the New York Philharmonic beginning in the 1930s. He was the first American to be commissioned by the Metropolitan opera for his work The King's Henchman, which along with his second opera Peter Ibbetson  enjoyed some success there.

His music has fallen so far out of favor that he is virtually unknown today. Until now. Navona is revisiting some of his music in the series The Lost Music of Deems Taylor,  which notches a Volume 2 with the EP Three Century Suite (Navona 6066).

The work at hand is very tuneful, lighthearted, but as full as a Victorian overstuffed couch, almost sounding like it was written by an American Edward Elgar. The five short movements have a somewhat rustic charm far from the modernism of an Ives or even a Copland.

But indeed this is well written fare, even if it may not blow our 2016 socks off. It is played nicely by the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronsky. Will we see a major Deems Taylor revival? Based on this, probably not. Yet the music stays in the mind and perhaps characterizes something of mainstream US currents we have long left behind. It is nice, if perhaps not especially profound.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Polish Violin Concertos, Bacewicz-Tansman-Spisak-Panufnik, Piotr Plawner, Kammersymphonie Berlin

While Russia was busy producing its distinctive tonal modernists in Stravinky, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, etc., Poland had its Bacewicz, Symanowski, Panufnik, and shared with Russia the honor of producing Weinberg.

Anyone who knows less of the Polish contributions to the art  (or for that matter is simply looking for good 20th century music) should listen to Polish Violin Concertos (Naxos 8.573496), an excellent presentation of four works with Piotr Plawner skillfully doing the violin solo honors and the Kammersymphonie Berlin under Jurgen Bruns providing the lively backdrop.

These are very memorable works from the hands and minds of Grazyna Bacewicz ("Violin Concerto No. 1" 1937), Alexandre Tansman ("Cinq pieces pour violon et petit orchestre" 1930), Michal Spisak ("Andante and Allegro for Violin and String Orchestra" 1954) and Andrzej Panufnik ("Violin Concerto" 1971).

The balance of solo violin expressions and orchestral utterances of distinction is nearly perfect thanks to the near ideal performances and the highly developed thematic developments of the composers involved.

You may not know some or even any of these names, but after hearing this recording several times you will appreciate each and every one of them for the quality and liveliness of the music.

There is much to recommend this volume, and nothing to regret. Stuff your stocking with this one!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Adam Levin, 21st Century Spanish Guitar 2, Balada, Torres, etc.

Spanish guitar technique has evolved over the centuries such that there is now a cohesive body of ways of attacking and/or simultaneously sounding one or more of the nylon strings. In our century those techniques continue to expand in breadth at the same time as the compositions reflect the vast development of melodic-harmonic possibilities present in the overall classical music oeuvre. There seems in fact to be a reflowering of the music today, a most welcome development.

We can hear nine examples in 21st Century Spanish Guitar 2 (Naxos 8.573409) played exceptionally well by guitarist Adam Levin as the second volume of a projected four in all. Eight of the nine are in first recordings. All were composed in the present decade.

Leonardo Balada's "Caprichos No.11" a reworking of five of Granados' "Danzas espanolas," opens the program with a flair. From there we are treated to interesting and worthy pieces by known and less-known Spanish composers Jesus Torres, Marc Lopez Godoy, Anton Garcia Abril, Luis de Pablo, Eduardo Soutullo, Jacobo Duran-Loriga, Benet Casablancas and Juan Manuel Ruiz.

These are compelling modern abstractions with traditional folk and improvisational feels mixed in with bold dashes of the contemporary. All but one were written especially for Levin and are dedicated to him. He returns the favor with dedicated, intricately realized performances that do full justice to the music.

This is indispensable listening for anyone interested in modernity in general and the Spanish guitar in particular. Volume two alone is a landmark collection in itself. Do not miss this one!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Eric Berlin, Calls and Echoes, American Sonatas for Trumpet and Piano

The cold months of the year and especially the holiday season seem like a good time for brass music. That may be personal, as I grew up with Gabrieli and  Handel's "The Trumpet Shall Sound" as part of my high school music program in Decembers and I kept up with it later on.

So an album by Eric Berlin, "American Sonatas for Trumpet and Piano," aka Calls and Echoes (MSR 1395) is sounding very good to me just about now. Berlin is a fine virtuoso well matched for the four dynamic and stirring works included on disk. His piano counterpart, Nadine Shank, seconds him with idiomatic and dramatic readings, and so the two render the music quite nicely indeed.

These four sonatas come to us in a modern neo-classical style. Each of them ventures meaningfully into the bravura and exploratory pathways that the trumpet-piano pairing suggests. James Stephenson's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (2001), Stanley Friedman's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (1995), Kent Kennan's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (1956) and finally Robert Suderberg's "Chamber Music VII: Ceremonies for Trumpet and Piano" (1984) are works of substance and one might say heroic qualities. By that I mean they demand a sort of heroic ability on the part of the soloist which Eric Berlin brings to us in all fullness.

This may have come out several years ago but it is every bit as vibrant now as then. Anyone who loves the trumpet played well and the neo-classical modern idiom will be very pleased with this one, I would certainly say. There is something timeless about the works and performances, yet they blow some warmth into your musical soul that is quite fitting for the winter months!

Very recommended.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Vincent D'Indy, Symphony No. 2, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jean-Luc Tingaud

If you had to put a very short list of composers responsible for the French modern school in chronological order it might appropriately read Franck-D'Indy-Debussy-Ravel-Messiaen. Some might have trouble with the fact that Faure, Milhaud, and Poulenc were missing, or Boulez, or any number of others, but the main idea is that Vincent D'Indy (1851-1931) was as important to the modern French School's post-late-romantic beginnings as anyone, yet his music does not bask in the sunlight of continual performances and recordings around the world.

But, no fear. Naxos has released a representative assortment of D'Indy orchestral works headed by his Symphony No. 2 (8.573522). Jean-Luc Tingaud conducts the Royal National Orchestra in a set of dynamic, very serviceable readings that bring out the orchestrational excellence of the works and provide a clear roadmap through the thickets and twists of D'Indy's mature musical mind.

The Symphony (1902-03) at first might not strike one as revolutionary in its orchestral language, but close listening brings out the contrasts between folkish themes and proto-impressionist, dappled pictorial orchestration. For that matter Wagner's forest music from "Siegfried" was as much pre-impressionist as this D'Indy music could be, but then D'Indy established a French precedent that those that came after could identify as a possible national-modernist trait.

What matters now is that his music as heard in the Symphony, his melancholy "Souvenirs" (1906), the somewhat exotic "Istar" (1896), and the Prelude to his opera "Fervaal" (1889-95) offers us a snapshot in time of  what was progressive music. If we listen with open ears, we can hear something of what came after but also appreciate D'Indy as fully integral, a fully convincing musical personality in his own right.

So this is a nice volume to hear and listen closely to, well done and filled with D'Indy's special music. Give it a hearing!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sergei Bortkiewicz, Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12, Alfonso Soldano

The 20th Century was a high-water mark for classical music, with the recorded medium greatly expanding our ability to hear a great number of works by composers we might otherwise never have had a chance to experience. That situation continues in our present-day world. And we continue to uncover composers and works that have generally been unavailable to us previously.

Today we have an example in the music of Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), whose piano pieces are nicely represented in Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12 (Divine Art 25142). Alfonso Soldano authoritatively mans the piano chair for a full program of solo works that cover the period of 1908 to 1946.

Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukraine, trained for a musical career in St. Petersburg and Leipzig, settled in Berlin. During WWI he was deported and lived again in Russia. The Revolution and WWII found him again fleeing his various homes until the end of the war allowed him to settle one last time in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1952.

Perhaps these continued dislocations can explain why his music has been all-but-forgotten today. That and a rather stubborn will to remain within a late romantic style.  Today we care less that someone did not follow the trends and fashions of his or her times, and the music sounds surprisingly fresh, somewhere between Rachmaninov and early Scriabin, yet continuously original in its thematic-melodic creativity. So the end result sounds not so much derivative as an integral voice, another pianistic force within the style-set.

Soldano makes a convincing case for these works, with virtuoso dramatics, sparkle, shimmer and dash.

I find in Bortkeiwicz as presented here a real discovery, not in some history-changing sense but in the quality and originality of the music. Bravo!  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ross Harris, Symphony No. 5, Violin Concerto

New Zealand's Ross Harris (b. 1945) is a happy surprise of a composer for me. The Naxos (8.573532) CD at hand gives us poetic readings of his Violin Concerto  and his Symphony No. 5, two expressionistic gems handled beautifully by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under Gary Walker for the former and Eckehard Stier for the latter. Ilya Gringolts sounds inspired in the solo violin role and mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell is glowingly moody in the solo vocal part of the Symphony.

Harris adroitly negotiates the terrain between tonality and atonality in both works. The Violin Concerto (2010) gives the soloist lyrical-mysterioso passages alternating with a bracing turbulence and the orchestra follows and expands the moods in ways that remind favorably of Berg's Concerto and its depth without in anyway mimicking it.

The Symphony No. 5 (2013) sets three poems of Panni Palasti that recall her immersion in wartime Budapest during the Nazi siege there during WWII. Opening and closing adagios of austerely striking beauty frame directly communicating settings of the poems, which in turn are set off by two vividly depictive scherzos that portray wartime violence and horror.

Harris is a composer of substantial orchestral nuance and freshly thematic substance. The two works paired in this release enjoy dramatically moving and crisp readings that set a high benchmark.

Harris is a modernist of real stature! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Steve Reich, The ECM Recordings, 3-CD Set

The three albums recorded by Steve Reich for ECM beginning in 1978 can be said without exaggeration to have changed the face of modern music for good and all. Terry Riley's "In C" was a first masterpiece of the so-called minimalism in the late '60s. Reich had established himself as a major member of this school with the phase electronics compositions "Ain't Gonna Rain" and "Come Out," then began his gradual climb to instrumental profundity with such works as "Four Organs." By the time he had completed and recorded "Drumming" for DGG he had shown us all how via sound color and phasing and a kind of neo-African ethos he could create long works that held interest with exhilarating forms-in-motion as unprecedented as they were brilliant.

All this sets the stage for Reich's extraordinarily fruitful involvement with the ECM label. To honor Reich's 80th birthday year the three albums he made for ECM: The ECM Recordings  (ECM New Series 2540-42), are available now as a special three-CD box set that includes an illuminating 43-page booklet with the original liners and a fine retrospective essay by Paul Griffiths.

The first album for the label contained the landmark extended work "Music for 18 Musicians." It marked a breakthrough for Reich and for minimalism as well. Here was a doubled-sided, full length work that took Reich's neo-African, pan-world idea of extended rhythmic-melodic form and developed it with a sectional approach to interrelated, pulsating thematic counterpoint. The part writing used extremely inventive melo-rhythmic cells, each with intrinsic interest that made their repetition seem desirable and as a shifting interlocking whole gave the listener a full-dimensional panorama of driving lyricism.

Like Riley's "In C" the motifs sounded especially well together. Reich sequenced the whole to proceed to ever-altering motival combinatory stations, some in a line of logical-affective development and others marking the beginning of shifted new beginning points.

He created new form out of modulating harmonic clouds hovering over foundational pedals in conjunction with urgently dynamic rhythmic sophistications, varying ensemble colors and melodic brilliance. Virtually anyone (like myself) who had been following minimalism to that point recognized and embraced the music as a fully satisfying way to proceed. Nothing was quite the same afterwards.

Indeed the album, so the liners tell us, sold a brisk 100,000 copies, unheard of for such music at that point. And it established Reich for good as a major composer of our times, truly.

The two albums that followed over the next several years on ECM continued along the lines of the brilliant first one. Octet - Music for a Large Ensemble - Violin Phase redid one of Reich's most compelling "phase" period works with Shem Guibbory holding forth spectacularly on multiple overdubbed violins. The other two works continued where "18" left off, crafting further period-oriented ensemble fireworks. For whatever reason, "Music for a Large Ensemble" has never been recorded again to date, and that makes this volume that much more essential.

The third record, Tehillim, gave us Jewish liturgical minimal music as striking for its vocal writing as "18" was for its ensemble instrumental inventions.

A vocal quartet engages in some of the most moving contrapuntal writing of our era, and a large ensemble reinforces and expands what they are doing for a music where repetition is utilized with through composed and song structured form for yet another kind of sound, yet another aspect of the Reich approach, equally brilliant and memorable.

Of course there have been many great Reich works following this ECM period, but surely these three albums set the pace for all that came after. The performances have never been topped, though there have been some excellent versions of much of this music in the years that have followed. But on all counts, this set is essential.  If you don't know so-called minimalism very well, get this set; if you don't know Reich well, get this; and anyone else who might not have the music...just get this!

Essential, period. And an essential period.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Gene Pritsker, Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death

With to date more than 580 compositions completed, Gene Pritsker can certainly be said to be prolific. And yet none of the works I have had the pleasure to have heard sound formulaic or hasty. Quite the contrary. His music is new in the most important sense, filled with a contemporary, dynamic ethos and a meaningful synthesis of new music classical per se, a strain of neo-classical at times, plus the pronounced and creative influence of rock, jazz, soul and rap, depending upon the work at hand.

I've covered quite few of his releases on these and related blog pages. Today I am back with another goodie, Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death, The Chamber Music of Gene Pritsker (Composers Concordance 0037).

The album culls together eight distinguished short-to-somewhat-longer works in ever-varying configurations: solo violin, solo cello, bass clarinet and percussion, piano and drums, violin and cello, flute, clarinet and piano, and bass clarinet and electric guitar.

In a way anything goes here but it goes in ways that stand out as fully Pritskeresque--finely constructed pieces with idiomatic part writing, stylistic multiplicity, rhythmic vitality and a recognizable Pritsker wholeness. Perhaps only Zappa before him has combined so much and so selectively, yet with such individual personality.

We never feel, though, that we are looking back, as much as we are moving forward. Gene Pritsker is a composer of our times, and undeniably one of the most original, daring and satisfying.

This chamber volume reminds us of that forcefully. Hear this and hear where we are now, one place at least!

Very recommended.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Max Reger, String Chamber Music

The world of Max Reger (1873-1916) is essentially multistylistic, which might explain why his music has gotten less attention in the years after his death. If one looks at the succession of styles as a kind of unilineal evolution on a line of progression to the most advanced and modern, as many did in the height of the first modern era per se, Reger does not easily fit. In his vast output, you can find works with a very chromatic approach, proto-modern, if you will. But then there are works which are more late romantic in their overall feel. Then there are works that look backward to Bach, especially in some of the unaccompanied string works, and/or have other neo-baroque elements. Finally these traits can and do overlap in any given work. Not everything is pure anything.

In the age we live in now there are many composers that take a multifold approach. We no longer demand that purity of intent that was so important in ages passed. So perhaps this is Max Reger's time? Why not?

We can feel that multiplicity of Reger's musical view quite nicely in the three-CD set String Chamber Music (Verstan VKIK 1617). One volume each is devoted to works for violin (featuring Erich Hobarth), viola (featuring Tatjana Masurenko) and cello (with Peter Bruns).

Each volume features a goodly assortment of works--for the instrument unaccompanied, with piano, or in small groupings of strings. As an added bonus the cello volume includes several works by Julius Klengel, a cellist and close associate of Reger. They enhance the program.

The soloists are excellent, as are their collaborators. A close listen to the contents of this boxed set will open up the string-oriented chamber worlds of Reger and give you a bird's-eye view of the best of his output in this realm.

It is music to savor, showing a restless beauty and a rather exceptional musical mind at work.

It is a great introduction to chamber Reger. I am very glad to have it and I think you will be, too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Yuki Numata Resnick, For Ko

Programs that pit one or more of Bach's suites for solo strings with modern works that assimilate or forward Bach's ideas or influence into today are not uncommon.   I've covered a few on these pages. Enter Yuki Numata Resnick and her For Ko (Innova 951). In essence it is Resnick's continuation of what she has been  doing in concerts since 2007.

The combination of Bach solo and related modern works takes form here via a fine performance of Bach's "Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor" interspersed with modern works by Caleb Burnhans ("Remembrance"), Clara Iannotta ("Dead Wasps in the Jam-Jar"), Matt Marks ("Trunket's Saraband"), and Andrew Greenwald ("Bouree").

The contemporary works play upon the physical-experiential presence of Bach's work against contrasting note and sound colors in abstractio to less radical transformations and even a short-story recitation interspersed with violin interjections related to Bach ("Trunket's Saraband").

Resnick's dedicated, resonant reading of Bach is quite beautiful. The contemporary sojourns and their varying degrees of distance from the Partita serve to situate the music both in the present and in the past.

It is a well-played and provocative resituating of Bach. A few plays will gradually draw you into an enchanted world that spans the centuries.

Very recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Neil Rolnick, Ex Machina

Electroacoustic music these days comes in many forms, from the hyperstructured formalist sort that shows a rigor of concept to the more intuitive, improvisational. Today's two-CD set by Neil Rolnick veers more toward the latter pole. Ex Machina (Innova 950) showcases five works that delight in the tranformation of recorded instruments and vocals without losing sight of the idea that the finished product is something deliberately composed.

"Silicon Breath" features sax improvisations by Ted Nash that are subjected in real-time to electronic transformations by Neil on the laptop.

"Wake Up" is based on samples of the Everly Brothers' iconic recordings of "Wake Up, Little Suzie" and "All I Have to Do is Dream." The special sound of the acoustic guitars and the brothers'  vocal style remains intact as Neil subjects snippets to re-harmonization and rhythmic permutations that gradually become rather uncanny in their scope.

"O Brother!" takes his brother Peter's rendition of "Shady Grove" and other traditional folk tunes sung and played on the banjo and subjects them to elaborate permutations with a constant kind of dialectic between tape source and degrees of transformation.

"Cello ex Machina"  gives cellist Ashley Bathgate  the chance to compose a kind of orchestral transformation of her cello by manipulating the sounds via laptop in real time.

"Dynamic RAM & Concert Grand" puts Katheen Supove through some exacting pianistic paces which fit into a groove and are at the same time diced and rearranged by Rolnick's computer manipulations.

In the end we have a set of electroacoustic tapestries that have an immediacy and ever-permutating spontaneity that are rather at a remove from the music-in-laboratory feel of much of the first electronic music works. Here there is a real-time, performative ethos that is as playful as it is serious. Just as the splicing of tape and careful filtering and rearranging that the first electronic works operated within was not a guarantee of worth, so today the various methods and softwares that allow live transformations via a laptop do not automatically create musical value. That of course comes from the creative imaginations of composer and performers.

It is Neil Rolnick and his collaborators that make this program very worthwhile, in the end. And for that reason I do recommend that all with an interest in electroacoustics hear this. It is fun and serious at the same time! Kudos!  

Friday, November 18, 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford, Choral Music

Perhaps it is hard to believe that 100 years ago Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was celebrated in England as one of the leading lights, especially for his choral works. Today he is not known as well as perhaps he might be. We have a chance to consider three of his landmark works in the genre on the Naxos (8.573512) album Choral Music. The Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Hill plus four effective vocal soloists give us spirited readings.

The ambitious "Sabat Mater - Symphonic Cantata, Op. 96" (1906) heads the program with a long multi-movement work of symphonic depth. Choral dramatics with a late romantic flourish alternate with post-Wagnerian symphonic interludes. It is a satisfying journey through alternately elating and dramatically poignant supplications surrounding the lamentations of Mary and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The finale is breathtaking.

The "Song to the Soul, Op. 97b" (1913) went unperformed during Stanford's lifetime. It is a unified setting of two Walt Whitman poems out of the three he had initially adopted in 1906 for his "Songs of Faith." The work begins mysteriously with the orchestra fanning out a searching theme, then segues to a largo that beautifully provides the backdrop for the sopranos' entrance. On from there it goes lyrically into the setting of the two poems. Tender and jubilant passages alternate in effective ways. You can hear in this work especially his relation to Elgar and Vaughan Williams stylistically, in the one a contemporary, in the other something of a precursor.

"The Resurrection" (1875) was one of Stanford's first major works, undertaken initially while studying with Carl Reinecke, then later revised somewhat. It is a rapturous opus, nicely orchestrated and filled with choral sublimities.

The performances are excellent; the works substantial and will no doubt appeal to Anglophiles with a penchant for Elgar and Vaughan William's choral works. Stanford convinces as an inventive late romanticist with a special flair for the choral. Recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Giorgio Gaslini, Murales Promenade, Alfonso Alberti, Yoichi Sugiyama, Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento

Throughout our present era, before his passing in 2014, Giorgio Gaslini has been one of the foremost European jazz composers and bandleaders on the scene. He was ever the rich source of unending good musical ideas, creating a body of recordings that were simultaneously avant garde and vividly communicating.

What is less known is his new music classical works, which we get an impressive sample of on the recording Murales Promenade (Stradivarius 37038), featuring Alfonso Alberti in the role of piano soloist, with Yoichi Sugiyama conducting the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento.

Two major concerted works are the center of the program:  the brash yet lyrical "Murales Promenade" (2008) and the "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" (2013). Both have at times some fiendishly difficult piano parts handled very well by Alberti.

These are ultra-modern works with a whiff of avant jazz lurking in the inner workings of the music, especially in the piano parts. There is a rhythmic vitality not surprising coming from Gaslini, and thematic dynamics in both a dramatic series of andantes and some introspective adagios.

A ten-minute palate cleanser is given us between the bookend concertos by means of the "Adagio is Beautiful" (1998) work for strings.

Whether or not you are familiar with his jazz recordings, this volume comes through with harmonically rich, lushly modern pieces that hold up after a number of hearings and reveal themselves bit-by-bit thanks to excellent performances from all concerned.

It is a winner on all counts. Gaslini fans and modernists will take readily to this music. Encore!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Philip Henderson, From the Old World to the New World, The Green and Pleasant Band

When you look back at the making of the United States, the truth is that all citizens, either in their own experience or that of their ancestors, came from somewhere else, even the Native Americans. The universality of immigration is a social fact.

It is fitting that the tale of such an epic journey be told in music. In this case we have the story of composer Philip Henderson's father and his sojourn from Kent, England to New York City in the 1930s. All takes place in the multi-part suite From the Old World to the New World (Divine Art 25141), as performed by the chamber orchestra The Green and Pleasant Band with soloists and vocalists.

It follows the protagonist's origins in rural England, the magic of the woods, the fateful sea voyage and the new life in America.

The music has a kind of folk-like archaicism in parts, a post-modern down-to-earth quality and ultimately a couple of defining songs, especially "New York Sing Me!" as done by Pia Sukana and, perhaps a bit more show tune-like than I was expecting to hear, "Play Broadway!" by Paul Baker. Aside from the latter the suite pulls together music of enchantment, lyric effusions that wear quite well from listen to listen.

Philip Henderson gives us something unexpected, original and filled with homespun charm. It is easy on the ears yet singular enough to gain and keep the attention of the more musically demanding among us. Bravo!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sor, 24 Exercises, Pieces de Societe, Steven Novacek, Guitar

Fernando Sor (1778-1839) was one of the founding fathers of modern classical guitar. We can hear his essentialist grasp of modern finger technique and post-contrapuntal homophony and polyphony on the Steven Novacek recording of 24 Exercises and Pieces de Societe  (Naxos 8.553341).

This is music more spirited and jaunty than profound, in keeping with the social role of the guitar in court society and the bourgeois parlor. The Pieces de Societe and 24 Exercises are filled with attractive melodies, dance forms, marches and the like, with the pedagogical emphasis on a solid grounding in technique for the  instruction of the dilettante, though the former set makes some substantial technical demands on the player that might have been beyond many amateurs then. The music is filled with delight and charm which transcends the merely instructive and speaks to us directly as memorable, refreshing musical moments that sing out to us in the very capable hands of Steven Novacek.

The sound is bright, the playing perfectly marvelous and the music bubbling over with good humor and zest.

This is a real treat, a break from heavy fare, in every way a good listen. Recommended!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Bruno Walter, Piano Quintet, Violin Sonata

When people hear the name Bruno Walter (1876-1962), they most likely think of him as one of the greatest conductors of last century. Perhaps they know that he started out as Mahler's conducting protege at the Vienna Opera. Most of us are unfamiliar with Walter the composer. That is understandable, since his output was not vast and was largely confined to his Vienna period.

Now we can hear some of what he was up to on a new volume of chamber works, showcasing his Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata (Naxos 8.573351), written in 1904 and 1908, respectively.

These are highly dramatic, bravura, complex, late romantic works with plenty of chromaticism and thematic density. They do not sound all that Mahlerian, do sound slightly Straussian on occasion, but mostly sound singularly Walterian while also being very much of their times.

They in the end get your ears motivated to follow, as each movement in both cases travels rather far into the expressive zones of the proto-modern in ways that show a fruitful musical imagination and a very accomplished craftsmanship in play.

Helping us appreciate the music a good deal is the performances of those involved: Exaterina Frolova on violin and Mari Sato on piano for the sonata; Patrick Vida and Lydia Peherstorfer on violins, Sybille Hausle on viola, Stefanie Huber on cello, and Le Liu on piano for the quintet. All have delved deeply into the scores at hand and have come up with fully satisfying performances, expressive more than sentimental, dynamic in all the right ways.

The music is weighty and deep. Is Walter an undiscovered great of his era? Not precisely, or not from the evidence of these two works alone. But certainly he was a composer of great promise. All is the pity he did not continue. What we have here, though, is well worth hearing.

It will be a nice addition to your early 20th century chamber music collection, especially for those interested in the extraordinarily fertile post-fin de siecle Vienna music scene.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 6, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

Russia had prevailed over Germany when Prokofiev began composing his Sixth Symphony. His Fifth had, as much as Prokofiev could do that sort of thing, been a patriotic flourish anticipating a Russian victory during its darkest hours. It was a score celebrated then and still looked upon as one of his best. The Sixth did not contain much of the huzzahs Stalin expected to hear. It is much more gloomy, in fact. No wonder, since the carnage had been enormous, the battles brutal, and the aftermath not encouraging to one seeking artistic freedom. It never received the popularity in Russia or abroad as did the Fifth.

Yet the Symphony No. 6 (1945-47), as we can hear beautifully performed by Marin Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony as Naxos 8.573518, is one of Prokofiev's most characteristic works, touchingly bitter-sweet, filled with that thematic brilliance of line that was so originally Prokofiev's, stirring, melancholy, agitated and in the end filled with a lyric somberness especially poignant.

In the hands of Alsop and Sao Paulo you hear it as a major work, complete, ravishing.

An added bonus is Prokofiev's "Waltz Suite," a marvelous collation of his ambiguous portrayal of waltz
situations in dramatic denouements from "Cinderella," "War and Peace" and "Lermontov." It is Prokofiev at his best and Allsop finds just the right balance between the beautiful and the grotesque.

So this is a very worthy volume--Prokofiev in sublimity and despair, Allsop encouraging her orchestral colleagues to give performances that rival the very best. Outstanding!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Spohr, Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6, Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Alfred Walter

The Spohr (1784-1859) symphonies series (originally released on Marco Polo in the '90s) continues to come out on Naxos. We are up to, I believe, the third volume, with a coupling of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6 (Naxos 8.555533), again with the very capable team of the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Walter.

The Third contrasts nicely with the Sixth. As the liner notes tell us, Spohr at the time of the Third (1828) was at the height of domestic and professional fulfillment, with a beloved wife and a solid reputation as a composer seemingly destined to carry on in the wake of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. The Third reflects a confidence and a mastery of a man sure of his powers and direction, with four impressive movements filled with inventive thematic material and a masterful handling of the orchestra.

By the time of the Sixth (1839), he had lost his wife and daughter to illness. The revival of early music had flowered, especially in the figures of Bach and Handel, and Spohr set about in the Sixth to reflect on the influences of past masters on his own outlook, at the same time perhaps looking back to a happier time in his life.

So there are movements showing style influences of Bach and Handel (the first movement), Haydn-Mozart (the second), Beethoven and the first wave of romanticism (third movement), and then in the final movement a rather bizarre parody of the music of the "very latest period," where Spohr roasts all that he saw as flashy and superficial in his time, for example as the liners tell us, the music of Auber and Adam. It is a kind of musical joke inserted into an otherwise sublime and exquisite score. It puzzled his contemporaries, but listening now we hear the finale and its sarcasm without undue shock. It does not so much mar the symphony as it offers an eccentric, frustrated gesture of despair over the times he lived in as a sort of postlude, perhaps a kind of expression of his state of mind during that period.

And in the end neither symphony offers perfection so much as shows us a rich musical mind in fully productive effervescence. These symphonies (and perhaps the sum totality of them as realized by Walter) will awake you to a symphonic master who is much better than his present-day reputation would indicate. The coupling of Symphonies Three and Six is especially attractive as are the performances.

If you wonder about Spohr this is a great volume to begin an exploration-expedition.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Jeremy Cullen, Scenes, Vol. 1

It is the morning after the elections here in the States and I for one need to concentrate on the music again. That's what I am about as always and today is no exception. New Zealand based composer Jeremy Cullen makes his appearance today with the collection of solo piano works Scenes, Vol. 1 (Notornis NTS 001). He composed and played piano for all thirty short works. Viola (Maria Grigoryeva) and Cello (Lyudmila Kadyrbaeva) are added to one work and several works subject the piano to electronic enhancement,

This is tonal, ambient, post-modern, post-Satieian music of lyrical charm and substance. It is not a nostalgic glance backward as much as a step forward in a historically aware, radically tonal vein.

I find this one stimulating and pleasing. I recommend it to you.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Richard Danielpour, Songs of Solitude, War Songs, Thomas Hampson, Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero

Richard Danielpour (b. 1956): like many others I have appreciated his music in the last decades. His recent album Songs of Solitude / War Songs (Naxos 8.559772), a set of poetic soliloquies, two song cycles for baritone (Thomas Hampson) and orchestra (Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero), stands out as especially memorable and lucid.

"Songs of Solitude" (2002) was written in response to the anguish the composer experienced in the wake of 9-11. It is based on poems of W.B. Yeats. The music like its counterpart here has a sort of genetic lineal relationship to Hindemith's important song cycle "When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloomed," which set Whitman poems on the death of Lincoln to mourn the demise of FDR. Like that work there is a lucid orchestral backdrop that responds to the vocal strains.

The music is in no way derivative, however. Both vocal line and orchestral dialog are singular, alternately resigned and inward looking with dynamically jazzy contrasts that exude with a kind of post-Bernsteinian panache.

"War Songs" (2008) continues with a regretful, somber view of war and its aftermath, based on Walt Whitman's Civil War poems. It was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of that war.

Like "Solitude" it is filled with marvelously poetic orchestral responses to the moving text and its artful declamation by Hampson.

As a kind of encore we get the short, lively and upbeat orchestral work "Toward the Splendid City" (1992) which ends the program on a positive note and extends our appreciation of Danielpour's winning orchestrational brilliance.

This is vivid music, subtle tonal-modern tour de force expressions, the main works heartfelt reactions to two of the most difficult historical periods in the USA.

Performances are exceptionally well-wrought, detailed and strong. The sound is excellent. The music unforgettable.

Very much recommended.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Fair Child of Beauty, The Bridal Day, Epithalamion

From Albion, a label devoted solely to lesser-known music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), comes the choral extravaganza Fair Child of Beauty (Albion 025/026), a two-CD set bringing us two forms of the work: the first a setting of the poetic narrative by Spenser, Epithalamion, arranged into a masque by  Ursula Wood (who was eventually to become Ralph's wife), and a second, oratorio version, all this from 1938-39.

Disk one contains "The Bridal Day," the masque, in its entirety; disk two "Epithalamion," the oratorio version. Each is related to the other as tree to branch, or rather perhaps as twin trunks.

Those who know Vaughan William's music well will recognize the pastoral-idyllic-impressionist-folkish element in full flourish, but also something at times of the choral sweep of "A Sea Symphony" and the rustic charm of "Hugh the Drover."

It is music of beauty and triumph, of timelessness, fully worthy of close listening. John Hopkins in the role of speaker in "Bridal Day," baritone Philip Smith, the Joyful Company of Singers under Peter Broadbent, and the Britten Sinfonia under Alan Tongue give the two variant works a joyful radiance as Vaughan Williams no doubt envisioned.

It is music any Vaughan Williams aficionado will doubtless welcome as I do. Anyone seeking to unravel the English musical resurgence of the first half of last century will find this instructive as well as very pleasurable.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Jack Gallagher, Piano Music, Frank Huang

As the world turns around us, new music is ever appearing, thankfully. Today it is the Piano Music (Centaur 3522) of Jack Gallagher. We have encountered his music fruitfully with the release of his orchestral music on several Naxos disks a while back (type his name in the index box for my review of his "Symphony No.2").

The orchestral disks showed a fine musical mind at work. This new release gives us another side of the composer, pairing down to the basics: his rather brilliant inventive faculties, a first-rate pianoforte, and the formidable interpretive pianism of Frank Huang.

Listening the first time, you may hear a lineage connection with Hindemith now and again, in the advanced harmonic-tonal restlessness, the beautiful juxtapositions of a kind of pan-diatonic, pan-chromatic structural profundity. But Jack goes further into what is a very modern, even jazz-influenced territory of voicings in fourths and fifths, with sometimes brittle and other times flowing edgy lyric qualities.

The  ambitious "Sonata for Piano" (1973/2005) and "Sonatina for Piano" (1976/1999) at once strike you as extraordinarily music, memorably complex and lucid essays of a post-neo-classical sort.

There are further treasures contained in this program, from the "Nocturne" (1976/2008) to the "Six Bagatelles" (1979) through to the spicy "Malambo Nouveau" (2000/2009).

It's exciting, very idiomatic, outstanding piano music. Gallagher is gifted with prescient abilities that make his language very directly communicative yet filled with complexities to satisfy the most exacting of ears. Frank Huang gives us ideal readings.

All you who revel in measured and expressive pianistic modernism, search no further. Jack Gallagher provides much to appreciate, to grow into after repeated hearings.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Carolin Widmann, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Violin Concertos, The Chamber Orchestra of Europe

There was never any doubt that Mendelssohn's "Violin Concerto" was a towering masterpiece of his era. Robert Schumann's concerto offering met another fate at first. Violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim spurned it. It remained unperformed until 1937, and it was not until Yehudi Menuhin championed it that it became better known.

But even today it is relatively unsung.

Enter Carolin Widmann and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with a new recording of both concertos (ECM New Series 2427).

The Mendelssohn gets a sweet and crisp treatment, with attention to the soaring melodies and sweeping scope. Is it as good as the old Heifetz version? No, but it does stand on its own for a well-rounded and thoroughgoing completeness.

And then the Schumann. What a surprise! It is thematically and theatrically alive, perhaps not quite as stunning as his "Piano Concerto," but in every way a work to be celebrated, virtually a "lost" Schumann masterpiece. Perhaps Joachim was expecting more virtuoso fireworks? In the end you don't miss them because you get the gloriously searching Schumann mysterioso touch.

Widmann and orchestra make it all ring true. They give it a fully majestic realization, fully sounding out, first-rate Schumann all the way.

So even if you have the Mendelssohn, this recording will give you a contrasting view. The Schumann, though, is a revelation. It will bring joy to all Schumann fans, all seeking something unheard and ravishing. Widmann gives it her all. Bravo!