Search This Blog

Monday, February 29, 2016

Florent Schmitt, Antoine et Cleopatre, Jo Ann Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was most active as composer in the early decades of the 20th century in France. He studied with Massenet and Faure. He was a Wagner enthusiast but also friends with Ravel and Satie. His music has been neglected for the most part in our era. But a recent release by the Buffalo Philharmonic under Jo Ann Falletta gives us a new look at several of his orchestral works, Antoine et Cleopatre, Le Palais hante (Naxos 8.573521).

Each deals with iconic English-language literary lights. A work centered around Shakespeare's play "Anthony and Cleopatra" (1920) served as incidental music for the Gide-translated version as performed at the Paris Opera (1920). Schmitt arranged the music into two suites for concert performance and such is the form we hear it in on the present recording.

Text from the Mallarme translation of Poe's "Haunted Palace" provides the subject matter for the second work heard here, "Le Palais hante--Etude symphonique pour Le Palais hante d'Edgar Poe" (1904).

Both are well wrought examples of what the liner notes on the album refer to as his "eclectic" approach. Indeed, you can hear echoes of Wagner and late romantics but also impressionist modernism. Both rather seamlessly intermingle and get moulded into an original cast of sorts by Schmitt. Every once in a while the music hits me as being somewhat Scriabin-esque in its harmonic restlessness as well.

These are the kinds of scores Jo Ann Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic do so well with--and so we get a detailed and impassioned reading of the music that does full justice to the composer. Schmitt shows orchestrational brilliance that Falletta takes care to bring to life. I've heard some of Schmitt's chamber music before but I do not believe that his orchestral music has previously graced my ears. The disk gives us an hour of lively music and a good idea of Schmitt in this conext. He may have served as a sort of way station on the road to French modern singularity, but the works here give you much to appreciate in that guise. Recommended.

Friday, February 26, 2016

collectif9, Volksmobiles

With the declining sales of classical CDs the past few years, there is a certain concern among the industry and artist base out there that "something must be done," that the music needs to appeal to new ears, that new ways must be found to engage people in the genre. I agree that new ideas might help. It is as true of classical as it is of "serious" jazz and perhaps of esoteric rock as well. So what is to be done?

One answer is in the deliberately entertaining ensemble collectif9 and their album Volksmobiles (self released).

The ensemble is a small chamber orchestra from Canada, a string nine-tet if you will. It has been attracting traditional and non-traditional audiences since its debut in 2011. This album is their first.

It is a lively gathering of mostly short folk-based works that work exceedingly well together.

The centerpiece is a three-part work commissioned by the ensemble, the title work "Volksmobiles" by Geof Holbrook and it shares with virtually the entire program a take on folksiness that is not afraid in include modern elements here and there.

Brahms' "Rondo alla zingarese" leads off the program as arranged by Thibault Bertin-Maghit, who is the double-bassist in the group. It has that infectious quality of the light classics that served as the music for various cartoons I saw as a kid. Those did get my interest and I guess the theory is that such music can still appeal to a broad base. I do not doubt it and the performance is very lively.

This is followed ingeniously by a Bertin-Maghit arrangement of a high-modernist folk work by Schnittke, "Sonata, Allegretto" (taken from his first violin sonata) and the juxtaposition gives us the modern equivalent of the Brahms in an almost uncanny manner, making it easy for listeners to enter "more difficult territory" without much effort, seemingly. It manages to demonstrate that the modern work shares with the Brahms a reworking of folk dance and so will I suspect connect the two different works in even untutored minds.

"Volksmobiles" follows and gives listeners a change of pace with some delightful post-modern accessibility that does not stint on musical content.

Then follows a lively Bartok Divertimento and finally a brief sort of country fiddling piece, "Petit Concerto pour Carignan" by Andre Gagnon.

In the end the audience in a relatively short amount of time gets exposed to romantic-to-modern-to postmodern classical music with a unifying folk element, played with great brio and vitality. It is substantial music that kept my interest but I believe would also appeal as a sort of introduction to the present-day classical world for kids and the not-as-yet-anointed older listeners.

It is lots of fun and yet it gives some worthwhile fare, played exceedingly well. Get this to play for your kids, grandma, your neighbors or anyone you might want to get interested in the music. Recommended!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

John Cage, Complete Works for Flute I, Katrin Zenz

John Cage's music is like a Zen rock garden. The elements, one way or another, are apparent. It is the arrangement of the elements that one can contemplate, see the apparency but then meditate on how each element relates. If the rocks are moved and the raking of the sand is redone, there is something new there to apprehend on various levels. This is as true of Cage's music as it is of some other modernist composers and also has something to do with the experiencing of various kinds of abstractions and juxtaposition in the modern visual arts.

I've long felt that way. The John Cage Complete Works for Flute I (Naxos 8.559773) literalizes that with the image of such a rock garden on the cover and a piece ("Ryoanji") named after a rock garden in Kyoto.

Many of Cage's works can vary radically from performance-to-performance, since the choice of instruments and their configuration, the choice of notes or sequence and the combining of works played simultaneously are often left up to the performer(s). That makes each recording often enough something unique.

Flautist Katrin Zenz with her compatriots give us the first in a two-volume complete Cage flute collection with a creative and successful approach that furnishes us with nicely appropriate versions where applicable and lively interpretations where the music is fully a given.

The first volume covers a wide range of works from 1935 through 1987, the early and the late, essentially.

A most valuable addition to the Cage opus is a rare performance (to me) of his very early "Three Pieces for Flute Duet" (1935), written when he had not settled on a given approach but nonetheless provides three charmingly chromatic-modern yet lyrical movements played nicely by Zenz and Uwe Grodd.

"Ryoanji" (1984) is realized in a version for flute, percussion and tape. It was originally written for oboist James Ostryniec. The principal part follows the visual contours of one of the rocks in the garden, with glissandi and pitch relations mimetically representing the shape. There are times when the shape overlaps in terms of multiple contours, and so in those instances the flute was split into a live and a taped version or at times two taped plus one live track for a three-way sonance. There is a ritualistic percussion part that represents the sand surrounding the rocks. This is one of the more overtly Zen works in Cage's catalog. It is music for contemplation, like the visual aspect of the rock garden for which it is named.

"Two" (1987) is the first of Cage's later number pieces, with music for flute and piano each presented with ten time-brackets, one fixed and the others variable. What results is a synchronous/a-synchronous series of overlappings of piano chords and quiet, low toned flute notes. The result is music with some modern dissonance but enmeshed in a world of contemplative detachment.

The final work on the program is "Music for Two" (1984/87). There are parts for 17 instruments but beyond the piano part, which is foundational yet variable, the realization of various parts for voices and instruments can collate for a large ensemble or, as here, can be restricted to a small chamber ensemble, in this case a two-person version for flute and piano. Each part has a number of performer choices built in. The current realization/arrangement by Zenz constitutes a premiere recording. It is 28 minutes of atmospheric Cagean "suchness." It is a worthy, idiomatically Cagean realization with special flute sonics and a slowly unfolding quiescence.

All in all this first volume gives us a good deal of the contemplative side of Cage. There are dissonances, tonal ambiguities and an atmospheric mix of sounds and silences in much of the music to be heard. The performances are quite beautiful and Zenz' artistry is at the forefront. Katrin Zenz has beauty of tone, imagination and a thorough grasp of extended techniques and their application to these works where appropriate.

It is modern avant garde music with an overall gentleness that should appeal to those who shy away from the turbulent stridency of some high modernism, yet it is landmark Cage nonetheless, and will undoubtedly be appreciated by Cage enthusiasts (those like me) as well.

Volume two is due out shortly. I will be reporting in on it soon enough. Meanwhile there is this fine first volume. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jeroen Van Veen, Riley 'In C', Piano & Keyboard Version

There seems little doubt at this point that Terry Riley's "In C" (1964) is the most lasting and widely admired work in the early minimalist movement. That is attested by the steady flow of concert performances and of new recordings, now all pretty substantial in number, that we have seen since the original recording came out in the late '60s under the composer's supervision.

Part of the reason for its continued popularity has to do with the open-ended quality of the work. It is for any number and quantity of instruments. It is composed, as is no doubt known to most readers, of a sequentially fixed series of diatonic motifs which each player plays repetitively, starting with the first, then moving on to the next at individual will. A good performance gives us a pulsating, shifting myriad of contrapuntal overlaps in motives. Each performance is different in that the combinations experienced have to do with the unique group interplay of close listening and individual motival shifts, with virtually infinite variations possible.

Enter Jeroen Van Veen, a pianist who has excelled at minimalist music performance. I have reviewed a good number of his recordings here (type his name in the search box for those). He is a natural, so to speak, at giving us the motor-repeat musicality and drive one hopes to hear, plus the variations in touch and phrasing one hopes for in a top-tiered concert pianist.

So it is only natural that he would record Riley 'In C' (Brilliant 95217). This is in fact his second recording of the work, longer and more involved and leisurely in its unfolding than the first, which I believe was recorded for his minimalist box set a few years ago. He chose to create this new version by multitracking several grand pianos, three electric keyboards, clavichord, four synthesizers and some other keys, laying down the work track-by-track until complete.

An all-keys version of the work has a special sound, especially in the hands of Van Veen. And for this 75-minute version there are some excellent and some interesting new (to me) contrapuntal overlaps born of his keen ear and plenty of time.

Is this version "better" than all others? Not necessarily. There is no best, really, since comparisons are based on ever-differing results in performance and the infinitely variable sound colors of the ensembles involved. The original version will always stand out for me, because like most people my age it was the first I heard and because I am so familiar with it. It became de facto definitive but not, certainly, the last word. The Van Veen version as presented here has a good deal going for it. It is surely one of the best and most interesting, especially for the keenly focused "ensemble" interplay. I would say I miss the marimbas of the original, but in fact repeated hearings of the Van Veen have gotten me used to their lack.

If you've never heard "In C" I imagine this version will give you a fine representative look at the possibilities the work contains. Eventually one should also hear the original version Riley did. For those who know "In C" intimately this version gives you a slightly different take on it. Either way at the Brilliant budget price it makes for a most stimulating and attractive, indeed a bravura performance version and you will not go broke getting it.

Nicely done! Recommended.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Jean Barriere, Vol 2 - Sonates pour le Violoncelle avec la Basso Continue, Bruno Cocset, Guido Balestracci & Les Basses Reunies

The lively virtuoso musical traditions that ultimately evolved into music for solo cello and basso continuo were in full flower by the baroque era. The music in many ways culminated out of renaissance music for viol and viol da gamba and hit new expressive heights and structural complexities in later years.

French and Italian schools were especially important. A name we are seeing increasingly often in this regard is Jean Barriere (1707-1747). Today I report in on Bruno Cocset & Les Basses Reunies with Guido Balestracci playing Barrier's Sonates Pour Le Violoncelle Avec La Basso Continue, Vol. 2 (Alpha Classics 220). The original instrument consort of solo cello, tenor violin (played by Bruno Cocset, who is also director of the ensemble) or Pardessus (Guido Balestracci) plus the basso continuo variously composed of harpsichord, cello, double bass and theorbo realizes in the second volume five sonatas for the cello and two for the pardessus (a cousin to the cello which has five or six strings and a fretted neck), plus a couple of worthy harpsichord solo pieces for good measure.

What is striking about this music when played on original instruments with period gut strings and the bow used at the time is the beautifully resonant sound given out by the solo instrument and the ensemble as a whole. Les Basses Reunies, Cocset and Balestracci have that unearthly period sound and so make of the Jean Barriere pieces all they should be.

The music is alternatingly jaunty or supremely lyrical, always captivating. In the hands of Les Basses Reunies we hear Barriere in all his glory. There are questions raised by the music as to which cello Barriere had in mind in each case. I will refer you to the liner notes for a full discussion on the matter, but suffice to say Cocset resorts to the tenor cello in F for one of the sonatas, otherwise sticking with the standard cello in C. The cello and pardessus solo parts are played with a beautiful artistry and impeccable technique in any event.

Anyone already conversant with other French and Italian grand masters of the baroque cello will find that Barriere holds his own in these works. The ensemble gives us outstanding performances with that uniquely sweet and resonant original instruments sonics. Volume two is a beauty. I suspect the same would be true of the initial volume, though I have not heard it as yet. Enthusiastically recommended!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Cyril Scott, Dawn and Twilight, The First and Last Violin Sonatas, Andrew Kirkman and Clipper Erickson

Cyril Scott (1879-1970) is a name you may not know. He gained a reputation in England as one of the finest composers of his generation. His music has since faded into the past like a photo album of yellowed depictions from a family now forgotten except by a selected few. Dawn and Twilight: The First and Last Violin Sonatas of Cyril Scott (Affetto 1504) is just what it says, world premiere recordings of these lovely works by Andrew Kirkman on violin, Clipper Erickson, piano.

To be fair, the "Violin Sonata No.1," in its original version here was written in 1910. The composer worked up a revised version in 1956, and that has received a recorded performance. But as the liners tell us, the later version was drastically shortened (coming in at around 30 minutes to the original's 40) and tightened in form. It seemingly does not quite have the youthful ardor and passion of the original. (I have not heard that version myself, but this original version sounds wholly right.)

The "Sonata No. 4" (1956) is the work of a composer in his '70s, a forgotten man. It was pretty well ignored at the time. The world had moved on and it had left Cyril behind.

In the light of today we can reconsider his music. He is being rediscovered. A number of recordings have been issued and all to the better. But for now we leave all that aside and concentrate on the works at hand. First of all I should compliment Andrew Kirkman and Clipper Erikson for their fine performances. These are works of depth and complexity. The two give loving attention to the many twist and turns, the dramatic declamatory outpourings and the dappled sunlight of the more whimsical, impressionist side of the music.

The Sonata No. 4 has a compact terseness that contrasts readily with the first. After all, 46 years intervene between the two, and the composer at his later stage remains rhapsodic but less expansive, a bit more modern, surely. It is a work that has expressive impact but less in the way of the early fireworks. There is to these ears nothing lacking. It does show a more introverted wisdom gained from standing alone, and a sharp musical focus that gives us a more controlled sense of form that is less apparent in the first.

The first sonata in contrast is a product of the composer at the height of early fame, a young lion who was celebrated as the potential leading light of his era in England. There is a certain dash, a boisterous expressionism that combines impressionist harmonies, romantic rhapsodic expression and a modern beyondness that wears well today.

In any case the highly crafted and never banal music as a whole shows rather brilliant inventive powers and a composer who deserves hearing. Any fan of the English school of 20th century composers will find this a real boon. Even those with a more general interest in the period will I believed be pleased to hear the music repeatedly. It has memorability and with the quality of the performances here offers a welcome refreshment from the usual names and works. Very recommended.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Leo Brouwer, Music for Bandurria and Guitar, Pedro Chamorro, Pedro Mateo Gonzalez

Leo Brouwer (b.1939) arguably has inherited the mantle as the foremost Latin-American composer for the guitar some time ago and has yet to relinquish it. But he also has written some fine music for the Bandurria, a Spanish cousin of the Mandolin that has remained popular in Latin America from the time of the arrival of the Spanish to to the present. Music for Bandurria and Guitar (Naxos 8.573363) gives us two duets for both instruments, plus one for solo bandurria and two for solo guitar. Both Pedro Chamorro on bandurria and Pedro Mateo Gonzalez on guitar are excellent exponents of their respective instruments and play the pieces with skill, imagination and charm.

The works themselves have varying degrees of Cuban folk elements, melodic tradition and/or modern leanings, all with characteristic Brouweresque flourishes.

The "Sonata para Bandurria" (2011) (a first recording) is a full-scale virtuoso showpiece that was written expressly for Chamorro and has three incisive movements. The guitar complement can be heard in the "Sonata del Caminante" (2007) which has some finely wrought, intricate passage work and makes equal virtuoso demands that Gonzalez handles with real artistry. It is idiomatically Latin-American in technique (though purposefully more intense that lyrical) but also has a modern advanced quality in a kind of perfect balance. It is a tribute to guitarist Odair Assad, for whom it was written, while also depicting the beautiful panoramas of Brazil.

The "Micropiezas para Bandurria y Guitarra" (1957) (another first recording) provides five short, varied movements dedicated to Darius Milhaud. It echoes with 19th century Cuban salon dance, vivid modern contrapuntal writing, lyrical melodicism with expanded harmonic-melodic contrasts and a final movement the features some touchingly inventive variations on the children's song Frere Jacques.

"Musica Incidental Campesina" (1978) (first recording) includes four short movements for bandurria and guitar that reflect the folk music of the Cuban countryside, rhythmically alive and melodically fetching, rethought and refigured in Brouwer's special way.

"Variaciones un tema de Victor Jara" (2007) pays tribute to the Chilean singer, songwriter and martyr with four movements for guitar. The music consists of variations on one of Jara's songs, "Lo unico que tengo (The Only Thing I Have)." The music is alternately warmly evocative and searchingly modern.

In the end this is a rather delightful volume of Brouwer at his best. The bandurria has a special sound that provides a refreshing change in sonance whether in solo context or in tandem with classical guitar. The guitar pieces are equally attractive. Both players are well prepared and fully accomplished, giving these works some pretty glorious interpretations. It may not set the world on fire, for that there are other Brouwer volumes, but it gives you captivating music throughout. Very recommended.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Krzysztof Meyer, Instrumental Music, Poznan Piano Trio

If you do not know the music of Krzysztof Meyer (b. 1943) you are missing something! He is in the chamber music realm a brilliant composer, a present-day Polish Bartok if you will, the creator of complex, ultra-rewarding music that somehow sums up where high modernism of the non-serial sort can be today. He studied with Penderecki and Boulanger, and came out of it with an originality and inspired craftsmanship that must be heard closely to be appreciated.

This is no more true than on the recent volume Instrumental Music (Naxos 8.573500), by the Poznan Piano Trio. They conquer five of his works, two in first recordings, covering a wide span between 1976 and 2010.

Every piece is gloriously gravitas, intensive, a super-focused meditation on chamber complex possibilities. The "Trio, op. 50" for violin, cello and piano (1980) is the brilliant capstone for the program, but then the "Canzona, op. 56" (1981) for cello and piano, the recent "Imaginary Variations, op. 114" (2010) for violin and piano, the "Moment Musical" (1976) for cello solo and the "Misterioso, op. 83" (1994) for violin and piano are no less accomplished.

We discussed his music on these pages before (see search box above) and this volume serves to confirm his stature as a chamber titan. The Poznan Piano Trio are nothing short of excellent in their fiery performances, as ideal as one might wish. The music has an extraordinary depth and a kind of timelessness that transcends present and past for music of, no exaggeration, considerable wonder.

If you could buy only one CD of chamber music this month, it should be this. If you don't know Meyer, you should dive into Instrumental Music without hesitation. If you know his music, this is essential to your collection. What more can I say? It is fabulous!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Roberto Sierra, Sinfonia No. 3 "La Salsa," Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, Maximiano Valdes

The orchestral music of Puerto-Rican born Roberto Sierra (b. 1953) comes to life in a new volume of works performed by the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maximiano Valdes. Sinfonia No. 3 "La Salsa" (Naxos 8.559817) covers the symphony plus two additional orchestral works and a song cycle featuring soprano Martha Guth and orchestra.

I covered an earlier Naxos volume of Sierra's orchestral works, including his fourth symphony, on a December 11, 2013 posting here. See that if you are curious.

The program is an excellent one. "Sinfonia No. 3 'La Salsa'" (2005) builds upon the ostinatos and melodic dance figures that form an integral part of Salsa but then ultimately treats them as symphonic themes for development in a diatonic-chromatic idiom. Sierra thus manages to capture the vitality of Latin American music while also placing it within the realm of modern new music classical. There is a toggling between the two idioms. In the end we get rhythmic excitement and vivid orchestral craftsmanship in a symphony that stands out as inspired and strongly personal.

"Boriken" (2005) works within baroque chaconne ostinato form yet puts forward a Latin tinge as well. "El Baile" (2012) returns directly to Latin American dance elements but comes to the music in differing ways from the symphony.

"Beyond the Silence of Sorrow" (2002) has at times a somewhat more atmospheric, neo-impressionist feel as Sierra sets to music six poems by American Indian poet N. Scott Momaday. There are contrasting modes based on the poems and their various subjects. The orchestral passages are nicely wrought and well orchestrated. Ms. Guth's vocals ring forth with character. It is a fine piece of work.

All four works show Sierra as a composer unto himself, a rather brilliant exponent of modernism with Latin American roots, and a master of modern orchestral textures. The Puerto Rico Symphony under Valdes sounds quite good and idiomatically conversant with Sierra's Latin-and-beyond sensibilities.

This is not avant music but neither is it engaging in much rear-view mirror gazing. It is music that should appeal to a large audience without compromising its seriousness and Latin-American vitality. Rather outstanding music, I would say. Very recommended.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Mavericks, American Modern Ensemble, Innovative Composer-Performers Who Think Outside the Box

Iconoclastic US composers-performers are in the spotlight on the American Modern Ensemble's Mavericks (AMR 1041). The subtitle reads Innovative Composer-Performers Who Think Outside the Box, and that is most appropriate since the ten works represented include eight brilliant musical thinkers of our time giving us some original and provocative music that is deeply intertwined with the innovative performance approaches of each. In every case instruments are extended beyond conventional limits, given heightened technical demands and combined in some cases with electronics which act to push the sonic boundaries in advanced directions.

The program came out of the AME concert Musical Mavericks held in New York City, 2007, a gathering of the seminal composer-performers as represented on the record, each providing one or more examples of their art. The plan was to release the concert recording as the album at hand. But since some of the composer subsequently revised and/or re-recorded the pieces performed, the album consists of some of the music as it was presented in the concert, substituting newly recorded or recently recorded versions of the other works for the most up-to-date results.

That works quite well, as it turns out. We hear ten considered and considerable works in all: Michael Lowenstern's "Spasm" for bass clarinet and electronics, Pamela Z's "Declarations in the First Person" from "Timepiece Triptych" for voice, bodysynth MIDI controller, processing and electronics, Sean McClowry's "April 94" for double bass and electronics, Robert Dick's "everyone@universe.existence" for flute, speech and recorded sound plus his "Sliding Life Blues" for flute with glissando headjoint, Robert Paterson's "Komodo" and "Piranha," each for five octave marimba played with six mallets, the late John Eaton's "Microtonal Fantasy" for two pianos tuned a quartet-tone apart, " William O. Smith's "Sumi-E" for clarinet and computer-transformed sounds, and finally Stuart Dempster's "Matthew, Can You Sperry Me Again?" for trombone.

Many of these works have a sort of performance art element that relates back in part to such things in the plastic arts and at times to avant garde jazz. In each case the performative fingerprint of each composer is uniquely apparent and in many ways irreducible from the compositional-performative presence of the music. That is not to say that some of these works will not have a performance life beyond the active participation of the author, but yet the definitive "autograph" version as it exists at the time of each recording is paramount.

And so the ten works provide us with a fascinating program of avant music that jumps out of a frozen world of notation and scores to breath the life of a personal immediacy, a singular personal presence. The music speaks to us with the here and now of each artist.

It is a compilation that stands out as an important documentation of the present-day modern music panorama of performance art, but also provides the excitement and pleasure of the creations in ways that will find you drawn back into the program with ever-renewed interest.

It is a testament to the creative, living presence of eight innovators. All who have an interest in the modern new music of today will no doubt find it revelatory and excellent listening.

Monday, February 15, 2016

International Contemporary Ensemble, On the Nature of Thingness, Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis

Some new music feels natural, organic, yet in no way precisely "traditional." I feel that way about the new disk by the International Contemporary Ensemble, On the Nature of Thingness (Starkland 223). It is a series of seven compositions by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis. It is a series of vividly colored works for various chamber configurations. The title work by Nathan Davis is for a small chamber orchestra. All of the music speaks the language of modern contemporary music today but in each case with a lucidly original voice.

The ICE shows on these performances that they are in every way an ensemble that provides us with sensitively alive performances of cutting-edge music.

On two works an electronic component complements solo instrumentation to excellent result. Nathan Davis and his "On speaking a hundred names" for bassoon and live processing matches up with Phyllis Chen's "Beneath A Trace of Vapor" for flute and tape. Each builds a universe of sound out of the performatives of the instrumentalist and electronics that extend the sound and give it a thickness appropriate to its engaging dramatics.

The largest and longest of the works is the Davis "On the Nature of Thingness" for soprano and 12 instrumentalists. The scoring includes ten jaw harps, mostly in a doubling role, and winds and strings for a sound thoroughly modern but with its own special declamatory presence. Tony Arnold sounds very convincing in her vocal role. The work spawns the mysterious nature of things and their concretization in sound. The jaw harps en mass give the listener an uncanny experience, but the whole work comes to life in intriguing ways throughout.

Inimitable, familiar yet exotically evocative sounds carry the day--from prepared piano (on Davis's "Ghostlight"), pianos, toy pianos and music boxes (on Chen's "Hush"), tuning forks, toy glockenspiels, violin, clarinet and toy piano (on Chen's "Chimers"), music boxes and electronics (on Chen and Robert Deitz's "Mobius"). The works get in each case a synthetic blend that reveals vivid sonic associations yet points us to the new possibilities inherent in the unusual mix of sounds as structured by the composers.

ICE's leader Claire Chase gives us food for thought about the composers in the liners. She sees Chen as a "magician" in her ability to "re-appropriate instruments" and lead us "back into the daunting and wondrous solitude of our childhoods." Davis for her "shine[s] a light on a natural element," in his music here, "revealing a breathtaking world of poetry that lies just beneath the surface." Amen to all that.

These are marvelous performances of special modern works that revel in brightly colored associative tone painting. It's an extraordinarily delightful program, recommended to anyone who seeks the best in contemporary sound color works today.

The album is due out on February 26, 2016. If you are reading this ahead of time you can pre-order the album at Amazon by clicking on the following link:

Friday, February 12, 2016

Allan Pettersson, Symphony No. 13, Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg

Allan Pettersson (1911-80) was undoubtedly one of Sweden's truly great modern symphonists, yet his music continues to generate controversy. Not considered a cutting-edge modernist during his lifetime, compared with, say, someone like Blomdahl, firmly staying with the symphony format when it seemed old-fashioned, yet writing music that did not appeal to traditionalists, he on principal refused to "follow the rules" on either side of the divide and so did not garner as large a following as he might. Today nobody cares that he did not write serial music and yet his music tends to be single-mindedly uncompromising so that those looking for recognizable pedestrian themes or a pleasant go of it tend to shy away. But it is to their loss.

Indeed, his Symphony No. 13 (1976) (BIS 2190), as recorded by Christian Lindberg and the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, proves to be monumental but difficult, 66 continuous minutes of supercharged, turbulent chromatic symphonic storms with nary a life-preserver in sight. In that way it is seminal mature Pettersson, with no concessions to audience expectations, an endless stretch of endless melody and thickly textured orchestration, expressive like nobody else before or after.

Lindberg and the Norrkoping Orchestra seem the ideal interpreters of his music. I covered their recording of his 9th here on April 10th, 2014 and was mightily impressed. The 13th confirms their prowess at bringing out the full scope of the composer.

Inevitably his long and painful bout with arthritis and his resulting invalid state for much of his later years has served to explain and sometimes to dismiss the music he produced. But it does not, though it does cast a heroic light on his persistent productivity. This is not a musical transposition of his illness. It is what he did in spite of it.

With music of such unrelenting strength and turbulence, many people feel the need for a programmatic explanation. To me this is music that struggles through a darkness of collective spirit and works its way beyond it as an affirmation of the will to transcend it all.

But even so this is a wonderfully extreme work. If you do not surrender yourself to it you will doubtless feel adrift. It is one continuous development, a long variation on itself, a deliberately ambiguous thematic macrocosm of unfolding form-in-motion. It is not music to take lightly. There is a determined, rather stern sound to it. If you allow it to have its way with your listening self it takes you to a place wholly original. The stern quality should not put you off. Bach, after all, could sound stern.

In fact it is a monumental symphonic gesture of the end of last century. Pettersson struggled mightily to create a masterpiece, to create with overwhelming sincerity a body of work that owes its life force to no one but Maestro Pettersson. That he created his own unique musical worlds against all odds we can only be thankful for.

You will need to hear this symphony a good number of times before it truly comes alive, given its unending torrent of unfolding. Once you give it your time it rewards with modern music at its most profound.

If you are up for the challenge, Lindberg and Norrkoping present a beautiful reading that rewards a concentrated immersion. It is seminal Pettersson! Highly recommended for those fearless modernists out there!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Orchestral Music, Volume Two, Dmitry Vasilyev, Siberian Symphony Orchestra

The reputation of composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96) has soared in the past decade or so. CD releases have multiplied rapidly, unearthing gems virtually all of us had no idea about. It continues. Orchestral Music, Volume Two (Toccata Classics 0313), with Dmitry Vasilyev conducting the Siberian Symphony Orchestra, gives us yet more revelatory music in first recordings, "Six Ballet Scenes, Choreographic Symphony, Op. 113" and his very last "Symphony No. 22, Op. 154," which was left in full piano score on his death and has been orchestrated convincingly by Kirill Umansky.

The "Ballet Scenes" Symphony has the lively scope of contrasts one can readily imagine as a ballet, which it was initially, though never performed. The White Chrysanthemum Weinberg completed in 1958, but for whatever reason it was never to be. He later returned to the music, adding interludes of improvisatory fantasia, conceiving it anew as a purely concert work. There is no evidence that it was performed during his lifetime. This recording apparently constitutes a first performance. It is worthy Weinberg without doubt, filled with vitality and grit.

The Symphony No. 22 was musically complete in piano reduction at the time of Weinberg's death in 1996, but the orchestration had to be taken on by Umansky for presentation in the 2003 "Moscow Festival." The work has a rather somber cast fitting for the composer's farewell gesture. It is deeply profound in its reflectively sober summing up with undiminished inventive thematics. Exemplary last-period Weinberg it certainly is, with the orchestration sounding true to the musical thematics and Weinberg's orchestral palette in later years.

The Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasilyev brings a luminous sonarity and a careful idiomatic treatment of the scores so that the performances give us all we might hope for in first recordings. The music is revelatory, once again, of the brilliance of this once underappreciated composer. His affinity with the sort of commanding, dramatically edgy approach of Shostakovich can be heard on the two works, yet there is an unwavering originality, too. Weinberg was and is an important figure on the modern, later 20th century Russian scene, and this music confirms that with genuine symphonic artistry and excellence.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Wolfgang Rihm, Two Other Movements, Abkehr, Schattenstuck, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR

Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) has gained a deserved reputation as one of Europe's finest living composers, with an extraordinarily productive output and music that has an expressionist modernist slant, that captures the essence of pre-serialist orchestral tradition yet moves the music forward into avant territory in no uncertain terms.

SWR Music has embarked on an ambitious series of recordings of Rihm's music, the latest of which I have been listening to. I refer to the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR's recording of Two Other Movements, Abkehr, Schattenstuck (SWR Music 19001CD). It constitutes Volume 7 of their Rihm Orchesterwerke series.

The three works are captivating examples of Rihm at his best, music without flaw, exciting music, performed with acuman and zeal under the conductorship of Roger Norrington (for "Two Other Movements") or Christian Arming (for the others).

"Two Other Movements" (2004) enjoys its world premiere recording. In spite of its casual sounding title it is a substantial work lasting some 35 minutes. It is a veritable symphony in its girth, filled with expressive orchestral gesture and dramatic contrasts.

"Schattenstuck" (1982-84) is an earlier masterpiece that has a brashly bold demeanor and a moody countenance. The orchestration is brilliant.

"Abkehr" (1985), another world premier recording, is brief but contentful, serving as a worthy transition between the two landmark end-pieces.

In all we get some beautifully characteristic Rihm, fully modern, fully original and performed with genuine sympathy and zest.

If you are unfamiliar with Rihm this is a fine starting point. If you are an enthusiast you will appreciate this volume quite a bit. But really any follower of the modern scene should hear this music. Essential listening!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thierry Miroglio, World of Percussion

Six works comprise Thierry Miroglio's World of Percussion (Naxos 8.573520). Miroglio faces the world alone, for these works demand he tackle the parts in a solo context. That is not an unusual request in new music folds, at least not since the '60s.

The music requires a mastery of different combinations of pitched and unpitched arrays of percussion and is not at all easy to play, but the effect is not so much overtly virtuostic as it is musical.

Miroglio is no stranger to the format, with a repertoire of some 400 solo works he can perform. He concertizes frequently while also teaching at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory, where he is a full professor, and traverses the world to give master classes as he can when not otherwise preoccupied with other duties.

The disk-lengthed recital at hand covers works composed within a broad swath of time between 1966 and 2010, though most hail from the current millennium. The music draws upon a diverse world of instruments: congas, hand percussion, various other instruments and electronics in Bruno Mantovani's "Le Grand Jeu" (1999), metallic percussion and electronics in Marco Stroppa's "Auras" (1995, rev. 2005), solo bass timpano in Peter Eotvos' "Thunder" (1995), solo vibraphone for Rene Leibowitz's "Three Caprices" (1966), timbales (timpani) in Philippe Hersant's "Trois petites etudes" (2010), and an array of instruments and computer for Jean-Claude Risset's "Nature Contra Nature" (1996-2005). The latter work brings the recital to a conclusion with some outstanding timbral densities born of multi-instrumental mastery and computerized sound-worlds.

The music is modernist and occasionally somewhat ambiant with the emphasis on the myriad colors of the instruments called for. Thierry Miroglio gives it all brilliant life with an outgoing and vital musical approach.

Anyone with a penchant for percussion music and the possibilities in a modern solo context will find this music fascinating and stimulating. Miroglio is a world-class master of the art of percussing. The recital is very worthwhile!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ives Symphony No. 4, Symphony No. 3, etc., Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot

I guess you could say I was fortunate to be in the generation to be alive and impressionable when the music of American iconoclast Charles Ives first gained wide public exposure and acclaim. It was around 1971-72 when I first encountered his music on LP, including the "Concord Sonata," his symphonies and a myriad of other works, all then coming forth in sometimes spectacular performances.

It had a profound effect on me. Ives' reputation as the "father of modern American music" came about in those years especially, though recordings first started appearing in the '50s.

Now that many years have gone by, we see that his works have not been assimilated into the standard repertoire as readily as, for example, Mahler. Nor have there been huge numbers of recordings of his works in later years. The standard concert-goers' ears have mostly remained conservative on what it wants to hear. Ives' bitter remonstrances against "easy-chair ears" still have some truth to them.

But happily there are recordings still forthcoming now and then. Today we consider an important new one. The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot has given us new versions of some of Ives' most outstanding orchestral works: Symphony No. 4, the Unanswered Question, Central Park in the Dark, Symphony No. 3 (Seattle Symphony Media 1009).

If you add "Three Places in New England" and "Holidays Symphony" to these works, you essentially have the handful of absolutely brilliant Ives for orchestra, so the combination is most gratifying.

I cut my teeth on the Stokowski/American Symphony Orchestra recording of the Fourth that came out on Columbia in the mid-sixties. The work is arguably Ives at his most daring. Ives sought to address why we are here in this final symphony. The work veers between utter cacaphony and mysteriously hushed passages, collages of hymn tunes, marches and you name it. The Stokowski version still remains the benchmark standard for its wide sweep and its unabashed anarchy. Yet the Seattle Symphony version holds its own as a more crispy articulate reading that nonetheless dives into the chaotic passages with verve. It is a good version to have regardless of whether you are familiar with the Stokowski or not.

"The Unanswered Question" I got to know and love via Leonard Bernstein's recording. It is an exceedingly beautiful mix of strings, which represent the silence of non-answers, the trumpet part, which asks the question repeatedly in a motive of which the last note is unresolved, a half-step higher in Ives' revised version. This is the version Bernstein used. The Seattle version opts for the first version of the motif, a half-step down and hence harmonically "correct." Ironically, it sounds jarringly wrong to me after so many years of hearing the other version. Nonetheless, Morlot captures nicely the winds attempting, more and more unsuccessfully, to answer the question in more and more dissonant ways. This is a fine version, but I do prefer the later trumpet motif, and Bernstein brings out the mysterious quality more fully.

"Central Park in the Dark" was originally meant to be performed with "Question" as "Two Contemplations" (1909) but Ives decided to break them apart. Either way it is good to hear them together, though again I do prefer Bernstein's version of this. Nonetheless, Seattle under Morot does a fine job with it.

Lastly there is Ives' "Symphony No. 3." The version here has everything going for it. It is in many ways the beginning of "Americana" in the classical realm as a very successful, irresistibly home-spun work which uses hymns and other old-American themes and flavors to create a sort of patchwork quilt of thematic elements that ultimately stand out as beautifully original, pure Ives, only much less avant than the other pieces.

The Seattle version of the 3rd rivals the best out there on disk. It makes of the 4th something very fine, perhaps a slight bit less ascerbic than the Stokowski but worthy to stand alongside it as another constrasting interpretation. The "Question" and "Central Park" fare to me much more convincingly in Bernstein's hands, but there is room for more than one version of course and these offer you an alternate view.

If you have no Ives orchestral to speak of this is a good place to start, though you may want to hunt down the Bernstein and Stokowski versions later. The 3rd is especially ravishing. For those who know Ives well this is a nice addition and a contrasting view of one of the very first modernists and still one of the greatest. Well worth a listen!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Antonio Soler, Sol de mi fortuna, Sonatas from the Morgan Library, Diego Ares

The Morgan Library in New York purchased in 2011 a cache of Antonio Soler (1729?-1783) manuscripts, which turned out to be a treasure trove of Harpsichord Sonatas of the Spanish master in their original versions, 29 unpublished. Young harpsichordist Diego Ares gives us world premier recordings of a good selection of them on his recent Sol de mi fortuna, Sonatas from the Morgan Library (Harmonia Mundi 902232).We get some 21 gems plus several "Preludio," "Interludio" and a Cannon.

Soler's Sonatas occupy an important and happy place for all adventurist listeners. There is a pronounced Spanish tinge to them, with plenty of thematic wealth and rhythmic vitality. There is a fascinating pre-rococo toggling between symmetry and asymmetry that has great charm and power to it. If you know and love Scarlatti's sonatas then you are bound to respond also to these. Whether Soler studied with him or not is unknown, but in any case the sonatas have a convergent quality with Scarlatti's yet have their own integrity and zest that rival the better-known exponent.

Diego Ares has the talent to bring the works to us in a most lively and brio way. He loves the sonatas, it is clear, and drives his readings with the care and enthusiasm the music deserves and demands.

The combination of works and execution gives us a real treat. Here is a great place to start if you do not know his sonatas, or a welcome addition of more for those that do.

Grab this one!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

John Burge, Chamber Music, Ensemble Made in Canada

I sometimes recall an experiment I learned about in psychology class in college. A group of dogs are shown one image and then given something to eat. They are shown another image and get a mild shock. The experimenters gradually alter each image so it more and more resembles the other. The more they are similar, the more the dogs are discomfited, not knowing what is going to happen.

Life can be like that. Not exactly, but for example a music that is not quite modern, plain and simple, and not quite neoclassical or neoromantic is a little harder to write about than music firmly in one camp or another.

I feel somewhat that way about Chamber Music of John Burge (Centrediscs 21715). The gifted chamber Ensemble Made in Canada perform three Burge works for us to experience on this album. They make the music sing. Angela Park is the pianist, Elissa Lee is on violin, Sharon Wei is on the viola, and Rachel Mercer is the cellist.

Not that the music makes me uncomfortable, far from it. It is music of great dramatic range and depth, located somewhere in the interstices between the modern aspect of postmodernism and the neoclassic/neoromantic strain today. What matters is that the music is well-crafted, inspired and lively.

John Burge was born in Ontario, 1961 and spent his early years in Calgary, where he began piano studies. After attending the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia, where he obtained degrees in theory and composition, he has gone on to teach, is a full professor at Queen's University in Ontario, and has spent much of his time amassing a sizable and impressive body of original works, for which he has received acclaim, recognition and numerous awards.

The three works included on the current program offer a window onto the mature composer, the meticulous and inspired craftsman-artist that is John Burge today. The program begins with two works for smaller chamber aggregates--"Pas de Deux" (2010) for violin and piano and "String Theory" (2011) for viola and piano. The works themselves are substantial but also serve to set the stage for the "Piano Quartet" (2012), which to me is the most impressive of the three.

The Quartet gives us a shifting focus of moods and expressivity in the three movements involved. The second movement centers around lyrically passionate mystery; the outer movements have a rousing rhythmic energy and part writing that plays the piano off of the strings as aggregates and individually, all in ways that immerse you continuously in a grand wealth of thematic invention.

Throughout there is the spice of chromatic modernism, classical developmental presence plus a neo- and post-romantic passion that come together convincingly and individually.

Ensemble Made in Canada do much to communicate the excitement and depth of the music. They are a first-rate ensemble who play with great conviction and elan.

The combination of Burge's dynamic individuality and the Ensemble Made in Canada's brio and brilliance make for a real winner. Bravo!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tim Brady, The How and the Why of Memory

Back to some current-day modern orchestral music, today from Tim Brady. He is a Montreal-based composer and he gives us three recent, substantial works on the album The How and the Why of Memory (Centrediscs 21515).

Symphony Nova Scotia under Bernhard Gueller bring us enthusiastic, detailed readings of the works. They center around Brady's Symphony No. 4, "The How and the Why of Memory" (2010-13) which is a rhythmically charged, bold and expressive modern work dealing with, in the composer's words, "how we listen to, imagine and especially how we remember music, trying to capture the flow of time, exploring issues of pattern, continuity and contrast."

The three movements (slow-fast-medium) run together continuously and leave us with an expanded tonality of finely orchestrated motorist constellations of horizontally oriented kinetic, insistent structures-in-motion. The music is ultimately modern in the most contemporary sense, well-wrought and highly charged.

Surrounding this pivotal work are two concertos. Opening the program is the "Requiem 21.5 - Violin Concerto" (2010-12), which reminds at times of the Berg Concerto for its impassioned anguish and thoroughgoingly ravishing violin part, played convincingly and artfully by Robert Uchida.

The music springs out of a passage from Varese's solo flute work "Density 21.5" and something from Mozart's "Requiem" in commemoration of the 28-year life of Lawrence Beauregard, the composer's friend from high school who played flute, cut down by cancer in his prime. The music has an understandably elegiac tone, with a movingly expressive fullness and regretful passion to it.

The program concludes with the "Viola Concerto" (2012-13). Julia Puchhammer-Sedillot does the honors impressively for the solo part. There is once again a highly expressive passion to be heard in this work, less mournful but showing again the restless motor rhythm excitement which is one of Brady's hallmark signature traits, working its magic with brilliance.

So that in essence is the music to be heard in this very engaging and involved program. Brady has his own way, embracing modernist tradition while finding his singular voice authoritatively and imaginatively, ultimately fashioning it all in a way that is very contemporary. This is a composer who has mastered for himself the nuances of orchestral possibilities, plumbed his own expressively vibrant imagination to bring us three masterful works that have all the makings of music for the future standard repertoire.

The How and Why of Memory gives us an excellent listen to a modern-contemporary composer of genuine stature. The performances are inspired and the music, indeed, lingers on in the memory as something to return to often. Very recommended.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Piotr Szewczyk, Violin Futura, 21st Century Solo Violin Project

As if to bring home the idea that the unaccompanied solo violin is very much a part of the contemporary music situation, violinist-composer Piotr Szewczyk gives us the album Violin Futura: 21st Century Violin Project (Navona 6028 2-CDs). The set brings to our ears 33 short works, includng several by the artist along with Mason Bates, Patrick Castillo, Carson P. Cooman, Sydney Hodkinson, and many others. All were written between 2006 and 2010. The composers were born between 1934 and 1983, so a spectrum of generations and biological ages are covered. The composers hail from many lands, from the United States to China, from Mexico to Germany.

Piotr himself was born in Poland. He resides in the US, where he makes his home-base and often performs. He is a violinist of impeccable technique and expressive wealth.

The works nearly all have programmatic features and run the gamut of contemporary violin techniques and compositional approaches. None would be mistaken for a work by Bach or Paganini. So this is modern music in the wide sense of the term.

Given the large number of miniatures involved, Szewczyk sees the sequencing as a kind of meta-composing in itself. In concert he will play 16 through without interruption and varies the order each time. We as listeners perforce hear the music in wholes as well, which is not to slight the merits of any of the works individually, but rather to experience the unity-in-diversity that the entirety represents. There tends to be, as the composer notes in the liners, an aesthetic eclecticism at play, a commonality of pan-stylism that is oftimes a hallmark of our current century. But within the idiomatically violin-specific totality the project represents we nonetheless get much variety of conception and attack, ultimately very personal expressions within a general "post-" universe.

Maestro Szewczyk brings to us a finely virtuoso capability and his musical acuman makes of the great mass of music a singular totality of what the violin can be today. All of the works bring together a kind of state-of-the-art of where the solo violin situates itself in our times. It is music to engage, to nudge us forward into the present-future.

It is a beautiful listen, best heard no doubt in single CD sittings but also appreciated more and more as one listens repeatedly.

A wonderful recital of some very significant music! I strongly recommend it to you.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Sixteen, Poetry in Music, Harry Christophers

Over the weekend, in the mornings I tend to haul out some old vinyl and give it a spin. Yesterday it included a Palestrina recording, a '50s early music disk typical of what one settled for back then. Hearing it I realized how radically groups like the Sixteen have changed our expectations. I could barely listen to this LP now, so uninspired and plain wrong it seemed to be after reveling in the Sixteen's considerably beautiful renditions of the contrapuntal master.

It seems fitting this morning to return to that angelic ensemble under Harry Christophers, this time for their anthology of English a capella choral, Poetry in Music (CORO 6134). As the title suggests, the works were chosen for their setting of worthy poetic texts by composers who knew how to do it, with six centuries represented from early to modern.

The theme is songs of departure and farewell, with texts by such luminaries as Edmund Spencer, Christopher Fry and W.H. Auden. The music contains gems by Britten, Howells, Rubbra, Tompkins, Weelkes and others, 14 short works in all, wondrously performed as one has come to expect from the Sixteen.

The great care Christophers and company give to every one of these and the beauty of the ensemble carry the day and bring us to a timeless realm of expression where 500 years pass and we feel we have been in the presence of great feeling, sublime poetic utterances transposed and transformed into sublime choral mastery, passages where word and song intertwine in the most fulfilling ways.

And so we have another triumph from the Sixteen! Long may they carry us along on their travels to vocal superlatives. Highly recommended.