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Friday, March 31, 2017

Rhona Clarke, A Different Game, The Fidelio Trio

In Rhona Clarke's very first album dedicated solely to her own music, she proves to be one of Ireland's most interesting and convincing living modern composers. A Different Game (Metier 28561) features the considerable dynamic expressive capabilities of The Fidelio Trio performing six chamber compositions that stand out for the articulate flow of modern musical ideas and the structural strengths of the overarching form each work takes.

The sophisticated advanced modern tonal pallette of her  Trios Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (the latter bearing the descriptive title "A Different Game") have a haunting, sometimes somewhat melancholy caste. They have thematic clout in a slightly neo-classical mode. The Fidelio Trio gives us spirited, detailed readings of the works that feel just right. They also tackle expressively the three additional chamber works that make use of smaller instrumental groupings: "Gleann Da Loch" (for piano solo), the ambient wonders of "Con Coro" for violin, cello and tape, and the reflective cello solo "In Umbra."

"Piano Trio No. 4 'A Different Game'" moves the trio concept along with a spiky, more playfully modern demeanor than Nos. 2 and 3, but in the end each of these works reveal aspects of Clarke's magnetic compositional personality, her brittle and atmospheric modern lyrical immediacy.

Clarke comes through as an original stylist and a brilliant musical conversationalist on this disk. There is always something there to pique your musical imagination, never a moment when inspiration flags. I find the entire program heartily stimulating and nearly endlessly rewarding.

It makes me want to hear more of her work! And it gives me great pleasure in the listening. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Kapralova, Complete Piano Music, Giorgio Koukl

Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940) led a brief life but marked it by writing music of an individual, modern nature that alas only gives us a tantalizing but fully formed glimpse of what she might have been. The Complete Piano Music (Grand Piano 708) shows us both a robust and paradoxically a delicate sensibility, a maturity of approach conjoined with a youthful impetuosity, all of which seems in retrospect to compensate for the all-too-short musical and physical life she lead. The back of the jewel box to this CD states that she is "now considered the most important female Czech composer of the 20th century." I find no reason to disagree.

Giorgio Koukl gives us an impassioned and well burnished performance of these gems. There is a quasi-romantic veneer to the earliest especially, a touching impressionistic lyricism that breaks through with a near breathtaking loveliness (hear the "April Preludes") and a budding modernist-folkish originality that has a strong Czech component but as a whole creates a world we would not otherwise know.

There is a good deal to absorb in the 65 minute playing time of this CD. of eleven works, four never before heard in recorded form, ranging from 1931-32 when she was but 16-17 years old, to some of her very last works of 1938-40. The music gradually becomes somewhat daringly modernistic in keeping with the flourishing of the Czechoslovak Republic prior to WWII, of a piece with that world but singularly showing her own brand of things.

There is some connection to Janacek to be heard, though never in some obvious way. Indeed, her father Vaclav Kapral was a pupil of the master composer. But in the end this in its finest moments (and there are many) is irredeemably Kapralovian. a young talent following her own muse. It is one of the 20th century's tragedies that she was to make it only to age 25, apparently a victim of Typhoid. The world lost what might well have been a major voice in the music. As it is there are strong intimations of more than mere mortality, some really beautiful works for us to savor and retain in our ears.

It is all here, all of the piano music. I am captivated with it and I would bet you would be, too. Some 77 years after her death we can still feel the musical pulse quickening in her aural self. Eerie, tragic, but triumphant for what little chance she had to give us her musical vision and what she left for us to contemplate. Appreciate that we are here to experience her music now. Not every life is long!

Very recommended.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mick Rossi, 160

The modern-day studio set up has made it possible for one person via overdubbing to become his-her own ensemble, playing all the parts and providing the impetus for a new music personally and directly. The digital platform has made such creations virtually infinite, which has then created a need to know how far to take it, when to stop.

Mick Rossi knows. He was inspired to lay down an entire album of such self-expressions, which we have happily on the CD 160 (Innova 954). This is music that combines adventurous new music/quasi-post-electronic outpourings with a rhythmic drive that is at times infectiously rock-related.

For precedent Frank Zappa comes to mind in his later days. He too created a self-mobilized sound via his elaborate sampling-synthesis set up. The result was brilliant Zappa. Mick Rossi might be said to follow in Zappa's footsteps, but the result is quite originally his own, with its own sort of brilliance.

Mick for this set of 15 short, interrelated vignettes mans a piano, prepared piano, Farfisa, harmonium, drums, percussion, glockenspiel, guzheng, mbira, sampler, and dog toy. The album is a reworking of music Rossi did for the film Albi's Oboe.

There may still be purists who look down on this sort of virtual reality. I am not one of them. The point is the musical result and the process, while of course is critical, it is not in the end defining.

160 is filled with absorbing sequences of multi-part developments, made pleasingly retro-like through certain motifs, the Farfisa parts, microscopic detunings between instruments and a kind of analog ambience.

But for all that this is a step into a rock-new-music zone that is both convincing and forward moving. It is complexly contemporary and foot-tappingly immediate.

Since I too delve into self-realized musical terrains often enough I regard Mick as an important and very worthy colleague. His 160 gives us a most excellent listen, a pioneering adventure into electroacoustic futurism. Repeated hearings create a joy of recognition, which all important new music should be capable of. It is music to dwell inside, to make over onto one's musico-memory template.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven, Susanne Kessel, Piano, Volume 1

Beethoven will never leave us, come what may. He and Bach have captured especially the world's heart and soul, have stirred our imaginations, made us look onto our earth or into what we can see of the firmament and think, "we can be more than we seem."

And so it is right that pianist Susanne Kessel has launched an ambitious international composition project of which we see the first fruits here, namely 250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven, and its first installment as Vol. 1 (WDR: The Cologne Broadcasts ppfb1 2-CDs). Here we have the first 25. Bonn pianist Kessel aims to have all 250 commissioned and in hand by 2020, which marks Beethoven's 250th birthday!

In the first installment all 25 are short, bagatelle-like, making use of Beethoven motifs or not as freely decided by the composers, but in some way channeling what Beethoven has meant to each. The music is captivating, ranging from a high modernism to a neo-post-wherever-we-are eclecticism.

The sheer diversity of approach is given concentrated poetic expression by Susanne Kessel, who makes of each piece a thing of dramatic beauty, or whimsical musicality, or heightened presence, or all-at-once.

The continual common denominator is the Kessel pianism, her readiness to put herself into whatever any given composer has creatively crafted. You may recognize some of the first 25 composers' names or you may not. The point is their point-in-time contemporaneity and how they choose to put into musical terms their debt to Beethoven and his revolutionizing of the role of the piano in the music that came to him and to those many generations of composers who came after.

In the end the first 25 of the composers give us a whirlwind of possibilities and remind us just how central Susanne Kessel is to the music of our time, marking and making vividly present our real-time devotion to the very new and the once new.

This is a central volume and a most promising beginning for such a worthy undertaking. Even if this were to be the only volume produced, which we know will not happen because more is on the way, it would (and does) stand on its own as a triumph of concept and content, masterful performances of fascinating and moving music. But of course there will be more. It all starts here. Listen, by all means.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Jerome Combier, Gone, Ensemble Cairn

Some ultra-contemporary composers write music so timbrally striking that the once sharp divide between electronic and instrumental music is radically blurred. Ensemble Cairn negotiates the realms of color and shadow and creates a unerringly vivid picture of such a music, the music of Jerome Combier. Gone (Aeon AECD 1651) brings to the listener a program of five Combier compositions that challenge our everyday assumptions of what instruments are "supposed" to sound like, and, for that matter how they are supposed to interact with electronic sounds.

The chamber plus electronic pieces form the beginning and end points of the album, but the middle works are no less exploratory in their compelling acoustical mass. Ensemble Cairn forms a mid-sized chamber ensemble, or a mini-chamber orchestra. There is a flautist, a clarinetist, pianist, guitarist, harpist, and a string quartet altogether.

The various Combier works call for various instrumental combinations, making entirely coherent demands on the players in a body of extended techniques, all of which results in a series of stunning sound-color sculptures.

"Dawnlight" (2015) opens the program with a long sound tapestry for flute, piano, violin, cello and electronics. This is music that travels beyond tonality or its lack to enter complex relationships between clearly pitched, sonically complex multiple pitch emanations and relatively unpitched percussive outbursts. One might say the same for all the works in this program.

In fact the huge potential vocabulary of electronic sounds matches the sonic variabilities of the instrumental utterances in brilliantly contrasting groupings and unexpected regroupings.

The middle part of the program brings three purely instrumental works to our ears. "Noir gris" (2007) for string trio, "Dog eat dog" (2014) for cello and guitar, and "Terra d'ombra" (2012-2015) for piano, harp and cello each has a unique and startling sonance. There are rich universes of dramatically narrative timbral relationships that unfold with unexpected and endlessly fascinating regular-irregularity.

Finally the 20-minute title work "Gone" (2010) for clarinet, piano, string trio and electronics unleashes the most sustained new timbral world of all. There are few living composers that could match this work for its startlingly inimitable palette of sounds and sequences.

In short Jerome Combier in Gone brings us signature high-modernist music with a brilliance that is virtually unparalleled in new music today. Ensemble Cairn brings their considerable contemporary technical prowess to bear on some of the most challenging instrumental works extant. They make of each of them a poetic totality, a remarkable achievement. Most importantly they bring us a beautiful realization of Jerome Combier's considerably prescient musical vision.

Unforgettable music. Essential listening!

Friday, March 24, 2017

ACME, Thrive on Routine

ACME stands for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Based on the CD at hand, I must say I am impressed. I speak of ACME's Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus 92211). On it we hear a nicely chosen selection of modern/postmodern works occupying an ambient, radical tonality turf.

The group as a whole consists of two violins, a viola, cello, piano, celeste, and two vibraphones. Clarice Jensen is the Artistic Director.

In all five works are represented, each one a journey into tone color and depth of field.

Calen Burhams, the violist in the ensemble, gives us his Jahrzeit for string quartet. It is beautifully resonant with an atmospheric born of harmonics, pizzicato and sparely applied but lush harmonies. The ostinato pattern repeated and played on top of reminds of Glass perhaps, but most appealingly rises into its own depth of expression. I get a strong pastoral feeling that fills me with a nostalgia for springs and summers past--but that is perhaps entirely personal.

Next up is a solo cello work by Caroline Shaw, "in manus tuas," played by Clarice Jensen. The colorful ambiance of the work fits in and follows naturally with Burhans' opening. Pizzicato and arpeggiated bowing establishes a post-Bachian presence that wears nicely.

Caroline returns with a solo piano work (played by Timo Andres), "Gustave Le Gray." It has a touching, yearning motif that continues to repeat and open out with developmental graduals in a moody fashion. It is based on Chopin's "Mazurka, Op. 17" and motives from that work blend in various ways with Caroline's own inventions.

Timo Andres then gives us his string quartet work in four movements, "Thrive On Routine." It musically describes Charles Ives' morning routine of early rising, digging in his potato patch, playing some from Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" and so forth. The music has a playful deliberation that to me expresses  Ives' continually inventive being as contrasted with the recurring sameness of his morning ritual sequence.

The final work features the full ensemble in a flowering version of John Luther Adams 1999 opus "In A Treeless Place, Only Snow." On the aesthetic level it has a feeling of a sort of enlightened haiku thoughtfulness expressing the suchness of nature. The repeating and intermingling strands work together for a very processual, unified result. It is remarkable, evocative, realized with great sympathy and affinity with the composer.

The album comes, as is often the case with Sono Luminus releases, with two disks--one a standard CD in vibrant stereo, the other a Blu-Ray disk with 5:1 playback capability. I do not have Blu-Ray but I can imagine that this sort of program would sound ravishing in the expanded aural space.

After hearing this a number of times I come out of the program with an enthusiastic two thumbs up. It is nothing short of lovely. ACME is off to a wonderful start!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vyacheslav Artyomov, Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World, National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, Vladimir Ashkenazy

From the brilliant musical mind of Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov comes another volume of orchestral works including the monumental Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World (Divine Art 25143), very stirringly performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia.

I reviewed another volume on these pages several months ago (see search box above) which was nothing short of revelatory. This new volume confirms that first impression. Artyomov is a major figure on the Russian new music scene, with an explosively modern pallet of mystical, mysterioso universes of sound, a basic sensibility that goes back to Scriabin and Messiaen but then carries it forward to today with true originality.

Two substantial works comprise this additional volume: the title work "Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World" (1990/2002) and "Ave Atque Vale" (1997), for percussion and orchestra. A brief bonus work closes off the program, "Ave, Crux Alba" (1994/2012) for choral group and orchestra.

The Symphony has a vast spatial expanse as its foundational premise. The orchestra bursts forward with huge modern clusters and quieter introspective interludes. It is landmark in its dramatic thrust, sounding great as a CD and one can imagine even more spectacular live.

"Ave Atque Vale" has a singular role for solo percussion, handled deftly by Rostislav Shatayevsky. An immersively contrasting  aural dimension is the way forward, marking out yet another, more reflective but no less enthralling spatial-sonic universe.

"Ave, Crux Alba" ends the CD with a brief but memorably anthemic lyricism.

Like the volume previously discussed here, this one beautifully carves out for us a celestial mysteriousness and at times a hugeness that holds its own as some of the most bracing and original music of our times. Artyomov is a voice for today, ultra-modern, futuristic and vibrant in its consistent aural brilliance. Get this one! Get both!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dvorak, Symphony No. 9, From the New World, A Hero's Song, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orch., Krzysztof Urbanski

One of my happiest first experiences in classical music was buying and hearing Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, From the New World. I was still pretty new to the classical literature. I found a version that was affordable to me (I did not have much spending money of course as a kid) and it turned out to be faithful to the spirit of the music (in retrospect). I played it for my mom and she loved it, too. Like many of us in the US, we were flattered that a great composer took the time to visit and leave for us a masterpiece. Of course it no doubt energized the composers active in the US at the time and more so later, giving them the energy and courage to forge their own way.

The popularity of the work here is such that my friend Marc many years ago applied for a cashier's job at a local Sam Goody record store, and one of the few questions they asked him was "who composed the New World Symphony?" In those days the chains even sought to carry and sell the more fleetingly popular fare and to pronounce Dvorak's name properly was a sign as well that you knew enough about things to help customers.

Well the years have ticked by at an advanced rate and I do wonder if the 9th sells well anymore, if there is a populism that has brains and knowledge? Suffice to say that for me the 9th still rings beautifully in my ear. And when I hear the movement based on the spiritual "Going Home," I remember my mom and how she loved this symphony.

A recent move has stripped me bare of most of my vinyl and Dvorak's 9th was among those. I actually did not much care for the version I had ended up with, so when the Krzysztof Urbanski and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra came up as something to review (Alpha-Classics 289), I eagerly jumped at it.

This is a singing version with everything going for it. The only aspect that I had to adjust to was the highly variable dynamic level, which perhaps came about as microphone placement was some distance from the orchestra? Not sure there, but in any event once you turn up the volume a bit all comes into focus.

The connection of this symphony genetically with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony has hit me more forcefully as I listen to the NDR--and perhaps it is the fine definition of the strings in relation to the winds in the overall balance and Urbanski's painstaking attention to getting that phrasing-dynamics right that has brought the lineage connection to my ears that much more readily. In any case the balance and phrasing brings out the beauty of the totality and how countrified the music is in Dvorak's special way. The "Going Home" movement takes advantage of that as well as one might hope for. And no reading is complete of course without a ravishing treatment of the section. I can hear my mom responding again, wherever she may be up there.

Urbanski gives us an unhurried, detailed take on the entire symphony. It makes one feel that Dvorak did manage to capture then what made America great and it wasn't walls or tax cuts for the rich, crippling the "meals-on-wheels" program, or for that matter slavery. There was a human-human decency in the US at its best and a human-land relationship of respect and care when things were right, and I think Dvorak managed to put that into his music.

As a nice extra, the album includes the lesser known but worthy Dvorak tone poem "A Hero's Song." Urbanski and the NDR give us an impassioned reading of that, too.

Well now I would say that if you are looking for a very living version of the "New World Symphony," or one more if you have a few, this performance stands out as very fulfilling. It reminds me of what enthralled me about the work when I was 14!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Johan Halvorsen, Carl Nielsen, Violin Concertos, Henning Kraggerud, Malmo Symphony, Bjarte Engeset

If one gets a certain distance from the origin period of one's love for music, one generally finds oneself being exposed alternatingly between the known, the known re-presented, and the relative unknown. So today I am pleased to express my receptive thoughts on such a mixture: violin virtuoso Henning Kraggerud and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra under Bjarte Engeset giving us a program of Violin Concertos by Johan Halvorsen and Carl Nielsen (Naxos 8.573738). Added as a short bonus is Johan Svendsen's "Romance."

Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) was during his lifetime an internationally acclaimed violinist, conductor and composer. His Norwegian roots entered his musical language in a general way, and we can hear that readily within the late romantic Scandinavian idiom of his Violin Concerto. It was first performed in 1909 by Canadian violin virtuoso Kathleen Parlow, then only 18 years old. The work was greeted with an enthusiastic audience reception in the four performances Parlow gave the work between 1909-1910. In was never performed again during the composer's lifetime, and he apparently burned what he thought were all copies of the work on his retirement in 1929. That was a mistake.

But happily Kathleen Parlow had retain a copy of the complete score and parts, which turned up in 2015. Kraggurd premiered the first present-day concert performance in 2016 and on the heels of that made the world premiere recording of the work which we can now appreciate here. It is a substantial bundle of rhapsodic demeanor, folk color and a definite "Northern romantic" quality. Kraggurd and the Malmo Symphony conducted by Bjarte Engeset, give us a spirited, idiomatic reading fully worthy of the work's substance and charm. And so we have something of great interest in fully fleshed out form.

The Halvorsen performance certainly makes this release worth pursuing in itself. But then we have the Nielsen Concerto nicely done.  If you do not have or have not heard this aspect of the Nielsen complete opus you no doubt should.

Johan Svendsen's "Romance" is a sweet surprise. It is northern lyric rhapsodicy in a fine fettle.

And all-in-all this is a thoughtful combination, well worth the good Naxos price. Hear it!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Pilgrim's Progress, Radio Play, Boult, BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Chorus

What lengths we go to hear ALL of Ralph Vaughan Williams' oeuvre depends on how committed to such a project we might be.

An example of the charming yet non-essential Vaughan Williams there is out there is the complete 1943 BBC radio play broadcast of The Pilgrim's Progress (Albion ALBCD 023/24) on two CDs, with incidental music by Vaughan Williams, played and sung by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The classic tale is rendered as only the BBC could do back then, with a period dramatic ethos we do not experience so much anymore.

The music itself has much to recommend it. Eight years later Vaughan Williams completed a full opera on the same subject, and this music has similarities and differences that will fascinate the completist.

Included is a 1929 broadcast of two short choruses by Granville Bantock, commemorating the John Bunyan tercentenary.

Perhaps this is not for everyone. But the serious Vaughan Williams enthusiast will respond readily. Others may be satisfied with Vaughan Williams' complete opera.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Martucci, Music for String Quartet, Piano Trios, Piano Quintet, Maria Semeraro, Quartetto Noferini

The absolute predominence of opera began to balance off with the growth of instrumental music after the turn of last century in Italy. One of the most interesting composers in this development was Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909). Pianist Maria Semerano and the Quartetto Noferini give us a judicious sampling of his chamber music on the recent 2-CD set Music for String Quartet, Piano Trios, Piano Quintet (Brilliant 2CD 94968).

Martucci managed to avoid the opera-producing hegemony of his times in Italy, embarking on a career as piano virtuoso, then establishing himself as an instrumental composer as well.

The assembled musicians give us very idiomatic, very decent readings of the "String Trios Nos. 1 and 2," the "Piano Quintet Op. 45," the "Momento musicale for String Quartet," the "Minueto for String Quartet" and "Three Pieces of G. F. Haendel transcribed for String Quartet."

One thing that strikes me about the music is its rhapsodic lyricism, its Italianate flavor, is ability to straddle romanticism, post-romanticism and even an incipient impressionism without a lot of to-do or overweaning musical pride. Martucci's lyric gift is in evidence throughout, but it does not seem to seek to draw attention to itself. There is an unforced flow of invention to be heard throughout, thanks in part to Ms. Semeraro and Quartetto Noferini's nicely understated readings. What is romantic about the music is generally allowed to emerge without the gushing of overly effortful emotive outpourings. And in the process Martucci sounds ahead of his time.

This is no doubt not music that will cause us to redefine radically the development of modernism. Nevertheless it is music of a distinct appeal, the presence of an almost endless font of creative form weaving. Listen to the first disk and its attention to the first trio and the quintet. They certainly sound fresh in the hands of the performers. They have a delightful sincerity about them, and that's true of the entire set.

I do recommend this to you, whether you wish to trace the development of modern Italian music or simply wish to experience some beautifully lyrical chamber strains, or both.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Natalia Andreeva Plays Preludes & Fugues, Bach, Franck, Shostakovich

Everybody knows and appreciates, for the most part, how Glenn Gould played fugues. Fast as it goes, exciting, dynamic. But of course there are other ways. Natalia Andreeva, the Russian pianist who gave us a beautiful volume of Ustvolskaya's complete piano works (see index box above) comes through with an album of  Preludes & Fugues (Divine Art 25139) where the emphasis is on a kind of meditative, poetic cast, grandly unfolding without hurry, studied but extraordinarily direct.

I've been listening closely to this album, and the more I hear it, the more I get inside of her way. Covered here are two preludes and fugues by Bach (one in C Sharp minor,  BWV 849, and one in A minor, S. 462, originally for organ, transcribed for piano by Liszt), plus Franck's "Prelude, choral et fugue," Shostakovich's "Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op 87 No. 20" and finally, as a bonus, two "Etude-Tableau" by Rachmaninoff--one in G minor, Op. 33, No. 7, and one in C sharp minor, Op. 33 No. 8.

The  minor key, as seen above, predominates, and Ms. Andreeva makes much of this with a mesmerizing clarity and spirit, very gravitas. She gives us every reason to appreciate her approach. She allows each segment much space to breathe, much to say by drawing out every passage with that Russian, singing quality we have in some of the best pianists from there.

It is an album to hear repeatedly, each time you uncover more detail and subtlety. It is a marvel of poetic interpretation. And a very coherent selection of gems as well.

Hurrah for Natalia Andreeva! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Peter Racine Fricker, The String Quartets, Villiers Quartet

English composer Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990) made something of a mark on the new music scene in the later forties-early fifties with a number of prize winning and commissioned works. After that he continued on with excellent music but perhaps operated more in the shadows.

In his lifetime he wrote four works for quartet that have been gathered together in The String Quartets (Naxos 8.571374), played with intense concentration and precision by the Villiers Quartet.

The works span a long period between 1943 and 1976. They show a serious and somewhat somber demeanor, filled with a modern chromatic expansiveness (No. 3 is in a serial mode) that borders on severity.

A marked brilliance of craft pervades all four works. Somewhere between later Bartok and, eventually, mid-Elliot Carter in manner of intent rather than imitation, the quartets consistently espouse a serious uncompromising modern expression as the subject matter.

There is growth and change to be heard when following chronologically the thread of expression from the "Adagio and Scherzo" of 1943, the Quartet No. 1 Op. 8 of 1948-1949, the Quartet No. 2 Op.20 of 1952-53 and the Quartet No. 3 of 1976. Three of the four works are in first recordings, surprising given the quality and singularity of this music.

I heartily recommend this volume for anyone with a serious interest in the modern period and in English composers of last century. This is very enlightening and provocative music, performed with zeal and care.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Waldland Ensemble, American Voices, Music for Clarinet, Viola and Piano

The virtuoso Waldland Ensemble (Jeremy Reynolds, clarinet, Hillary Herndon, viola, Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo, piano) energize our musical senses and provide us with excitement and depth with a program of modern world premier recordings of American chamber music from relatively unknown but very deserving living composers. American Voices (MSR Classics MS 1541) brings us in close and intimate concordance with Kenji Bunch ("Four Flashbacks"), Anthony Constantino ("Ritual Songs"), Dana Wilson ("A Thousand Whirling Dreams"), Michael Kimber ("Vanishing Woods"), and Libby Larsen ("Ferlinghetti").

There is not a clinker to be heard and nothing save ultra-dynamic energy and lyric power in this anthology. The somewhat unusual instrumentation seems entirely right in the hands of this potent trio.

"Four Flashbacks" gives us brief but spectacular blues drenched vignettes that try and capture the composer's fleeting sensory and concrete memories of his musical upbringing in New York City.

"Ritual Songs" uses a three-note motif to launch a series of three short but intensive movements that function as a tripartite set of variations.

"A Thousand Whirling Dreams" gains inspiration from the vivid ending of the poem "As I Grew Older" by Langston Hughes.

"Vanishing Woods" captures the composer's love of the rapidly vanishing natural woodland settings available to us through treatment of an old hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth."

"Ferlinghetti" is a series of musical responses to the American poet's work.

We immerse ourselves happily in this music (or I do, anyway), which gives us a great number of reasons to celebrate the ongoing local efflorescence of the modern vernacular-influenced sound of the best in American chamber music today.

Very much recommended!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Crystal Mooncone, Listening Beam Five

For consideration today is an album of ambient, radical tonality soundscapes by the trio Crystal Mooncone. Listening Bean Five (Innova 973) gives us eight live sonic meditations that put us into quiet brown studies of varied atmospherics, all from the collective imaginations of the threesome--Stephen Rush on electric and acoustic piano, synthesizer, vocals and miscellaneous instruments; Chris Peck, flute and miscellaneous instruments; and Jon Moniaci, accordion and miscellaneous instruments.

The relatively simple means to produce a broad spectrum of cosmic moods does not detract from the aural appeal of it all. Drones and sustains layer under tonal events that include folk-like melodies and other diatonic lyricalities. Generally the overall sound transcends the relative simplicity of each element.

What is remarkable is the engaging and affective outcomes of each scape. These three are attuned to the ambient objectives of each number and make all eight interrelate and stand forward.

Some beautiful, gently aspiring music.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Brahms, Sinfonie Nr. 1, Franz Konwitschny, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, 1962

In 1962 conductor Franz Konwischny, just weeks before his death, gathered the Gewanhausorchester Liepzig into an East German recording studio to record Brahms' celebrated Symphony No. 1 (Berlin Classics 0300839BC). That recording, remastered from the original tapes, lives once again.

The enormous power of this reading comes to us over the years as timeless. As I first listened I heard of course once again the influence of Beethoven, but then it struck me how much it was a precursor to Bruckner's sprawling symphonies, despite the critic Hanslick's diatribes separating Wagner and then Bruckner radically from a consideration of Brahms. No, Brahms's incredibly moving First pointed backwards to Beethoven but also pointed forward to late romanticism. I have lived with a van Karajan version of the symphony for years, but this reading has something very different going on.

The strong opening assault on the senses, those beautiful andante-largo passages, the soaring lyricism of the final movement, there is an unhurried, stately, singing beauty and largeness I've never quite heard from the First until now.

The sound is excellent, the performance inspired. It is a true ear opener.

Get it if you love the First, but even if you are not sure (if that is possible).


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Peter Maxwell Davies, Works for Violin, Duccio Ceccanti

We lost composer Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016). But of course he left behind a large body of works and Naxos has been seeing fit to issue and reissue a large number of them Today we have an interesting chamber compilation of recent compositions, Works for Violin (Naxos 8.573599) featuring Duccio Ceccanti as the violin protagonist in a series of fine, virtuoso-poetic performances.

Three works cover the period from 2002 to 2013, one goes back to 1978-88; all tend to combine modernistic with tonal and sometimes folk colloquial sounds. Three of the four works are first recordings.

The "Sonata for Violin Alone" (2013) has a deeply introspective, ruminating quality and a stark beauty. It is one of Maxwell Davies' last works--dedicated to Duccio Ceccanti who gives us a very beautiful performance.

The "Dances from the Two Fiddlers" (1978/88) is a memorable fiddle-tune oriented work adapted from the children's opera of the same name with a series of brief but engaging ditties.

The "Sonata for Violin and Piano" (2008) returns to somewhat more formal grounds, though it portrays an imaginary walk through Rome on a non-existent walkway. It is modern-eclectic sounding in Peter's later, very personal way. There is drama in abundance for moments of considerable expressive power, then a disarming folk tenderness.. It is a tour de force for Ceccanti and pianist Bruno Canino.

The "Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle" (2002) brings in Vittorio Ceccanti on cello nicely for a modern take on folk forms and their integration into expressionist classical-modern style a la Maxwell Davies.

Duccio, pianists Matteo Fossi and Bruno Canino, and cellist Vittorio Ceccanti give us their sensitive and considerable all for a remarkable reading of these very intimate and revealing later works.

Modern chamber music enthusiasts and Maxwell Davies devotees no doubt will be captivated with this program as I am. But really there is beauty and accessibility for nearly everyone with the added challenge of very modern expression to brace our listening selves and provide a fabulously contrasting diversion.

Very recommended.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Francesco Cilea, Complete Piano Music, Pier Paolo Vincenzi

The piano music of Francesco Cilea (1866-1950) has been virtually absent in our times from the concert hall, the publishing house and the recording studio. Until now and Pier Paolo Vincenzi's  performance of Cilea's Complete Piano Music (Brilliant 2CD 95318). The totalized oeuvre spans the time period from 1883 to 1930. The early works reflect influence of the romantics, notably Chopin and Schumann, but the mature period is another matter. Vincenzi in the accompanying booklet notes Cilea's Mediterranean melodic approach and we can hear increasingly as Cilea matures a mastery of contemporary European harmony, the influence especially of Debussy and the impressionists.

In his earliest work he preceded the Italian instrumental masters of the early-to-mid 20th century by a number of years. Hearing all the works in one place here we encounter affable company, a lyric element, a sturdy character to most pieces and some that show an exploratory sense of adventure.

But in the end Cilea seems less an innovator, more a synthesist. Not a bold modernist as much as a craftsman of talent and now and again of inventive inspiration.

Pier Paolo Vincenzi does a fine job bringing these works to us. Anyone with an interest in 20th century Italy will gain knowledge of a composer who deserves hearing. The music pleases.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Nordic Affect, Raindamage

Iceland's contemporary music quartet Nordic Affect returns with the album Raindamage (Sono Luminus 70008). It features three compositions originally performed by Nordic Affect in 2014 in the Icelandic concert Flow, plus three electronic compositions, one by each of the composers represented on the program. So we get Valgeir Sigurosson with "Raindamage" for violin, viola, cello and electronics along with the electronic "Antigravity;" Ulfur Hansson and "PYD" for violin, viola, cello and voices, plus "Skin Continuum" for electronics; and Hlynur Aoils Vilmarsson with "[N]" for violin, viola, cello and harpsichord, plus "NOA::EMS" for electronics.

The music somehow has a natural ambient quality of process whether calling for conventional instruments, instruments and electronics or electronics alone. There are modern sound color elements, soundscaping and various punctuations that mostly enhance the flow of the sound tapestry.

The compositions fit together end-over-end to create one long interrelated sound interlude. Nordic Affect puts themselves into the music so thoroughly that their utterances do not for the most part sharply differentiate themselves from the electronic dreamtime landscapes.

The music has a vivid Northern quality, icy or expansive, musico-biological, uncanny. It is an intimate collaboration of composer and performers, so much so that I cannot imagine at this point subsequent versions by other instrumentalists, that is how much the composer-instrumental nexus creates strong bonds for these pieces. It is a fabulous sound world that has great abstraction yet a sort of sound narrative that speaks to us in each case.

Is this the new music of the future? We don't need to know that. In any case it is some new music of the present, some very riveting new music, something every new music enthusiast should hear and appreciate.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Works for Violin & Piano Vol. 2 , Stefan Kirpal, Andreas Kirpal

A close listen to Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Works for Violin & Piano Vol. 2 (CPO 777457-2) affirms that for all the revival hubbub on the Jewish-Polish-Russian  modernist composer (1919-1996), there really is reason to pay attention. The Kirpal team (Stefan on violin, Andreas on piano, Gundula on 2nd violin for one piece) brings to us a remarkable set of works with all the devotion and care we could ask for.

The two CD set gives us the Sonatas for Violin and Piano Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6 plus the "Sonatina, op. 46," the "Sonata op. 69 fur zwei Violinen" and "Moldowische Rhapsodie op. 47/3."

These are works that beautifully remind us how unexpected much of this music can be. The rhythmic flow moves along in expected ways, yet the diatonic-chromatic melodic and harmonic twists and turns combine Jewish, Russian and Polish elements in completely untoward ways. In the process all sounds right. All sounds for us in a completely idiomatic, original way. You hear a bit of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in their wayward moods (and maybe all three share a common zeitgeist which is more than mere influence?), yet it never quite goes the way you expect, and that provides endless aural fascination.

The Kirpals phrase everything just so, all the more to set the listener up for the beautifully obstinate refusal to hit the bland notes.

This volume is a wonder. It needs to be heard! Exceptional in all ways, I would say.



Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bernstein, Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

One thing seems sure to me this morning. The advent of Bernstein's first (1942) and second (1949) symphonies marked the arrival of an American musical titan. Subtitled "Jeremiah" and the "Age of Anxiety," respectively, they showed us a contemporary modern composer of great originality, of dramatic power and lyrical intensity, a supreme melodist and a sure master of modern orchestration.

When we hear them again today in the hands of conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos 8.559790), they speak directly to us, they cut through the more overtly successful later Bernstein works and his subsequent status as a conductor and musical guide of the first rank. They remind us that Bernstein was on to something special even then.

We hear rhapsodic sincerity and great rhythmic vitality in "Jeremiah," as well understandably as some very spare but subtle Bernsteinian transformation of Jewish liturgical elements. The final movement brings in the mezzo-soprano part (nicely sung here by Jennifer Johnson Cano) for an almost Mahlerian flourish. Yet in the end this is an American symphony that follows originally in the footsteps of Bernstein's mentor and friend Aaron Copland.

The "Age of Anxiety," heard in its 1965 revision, goes even further into an American idiom, with the piano part (beautifully realized here by Jean-Yves Thibaudet) straying into jazz influences (that remained an important part of Bernstein's approach later on of course) and further extensions of the lyricism we hear in "Jeremiah."

With Marin Alsop's faithful and passionate readings of the two symphonies we hear a contemporary freshness, a timeless depth of spirit. They come across as landmark milestones in American symphonic music, as well they should.

Ms. Alsop and her musical colleagues breathe fresh air into these scores and give us pause. There is everything here, in supremely balanced readings.

Very much recommended, for those who have not fully experienced these symphonies as yet, and even for those who have.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Shostakovich, Piano Concertos 1 and 2, String Quartets 2 and 8 (solo piano versions), Boris Giltburg

Shostakovich most of the time managed to run the social realist gamut of the Soviet Union censors while remaining true to his artistic vision. He did endure periods of marked condemnation, notably in 1936 and 1948, but for the most part his talent outshined the strife. That did not mean that he had an easy go of it. His piano concertos were a good case in point. They were separated in time by some 24 years. Concerto No. 1 hails back to 1933; No. 2 from 1957. A new recording of them by pianist Boris Giltburg and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko is out and brings them both into sharp relief (Naxos 8.5736666). Both relied upon masses-inspiring gallops for the outer movements and lyrical interludes in the middle.  Dmitri must have felt  that such a sequence would meet with acceptance and approval. But there is ever a mood of refusal within each movement, a brilliantly original waywardness that survives as a subtext to outward compliance.

In any case the music holds plenty of attractions for us today. Very Russian in a Shostakovichian way, with enough modern touches to put them in the time frame of the then-present, they have real appeal and bittersweet poignancy when played in the ultra-spirited, then ultra-lyrical manner of Giltburg and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

A dramatic shift can be heard in the Giltburg solo piano version of Shostakovich's "String Quartet No. 8." It is a much more "advanced" work, expressive and uncompromising, and we feel the contrast especially vividly when we compare piano part to piano part. It is around 1960, when Shostakovich was apparently under increasing pressure to tow the ideological line, and though he complied it left him in a temporarily shattered state. Quartet No. 8 was a work he privately dedicated to his own memory, looking back on his life in very expressive, dark terms. It was his own private music, completely unmindful of government approval or rejection.

The Giltburg piano version is a nice revelation, as is his version of the allegro to Quartet No. 2  that also appears on the album.

If the piano concertos represent Shostakovich's brilliant transcendence over orthodoxy, his Quartet No. 8 is a bitter rejection of it. There is stark contrast here, but with the dedicated performances on the disk, there is ultimate triumph!

Recommended heartily.