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Monday, July 31, 2017

Puccini, La Fanciulla del West, Placido Domingo, Zubin Mehta

La Fanciulla del West (Pentatone 5186 243), the Wild West opera by Puccini (1858-1924) is something of an oddity, but for all that an endearing one. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 as a vehicle for tenor giant Caruso, it is not one of Puccini's most popular works (La Boheme, Turandot and Madam Butterfly would qualify for such status, all earlier operas). Yet is in no way inferior from a musical standpoint, and ultimately a bit bizarre. The sight of a bunch of operatic cowboys prancing about in a pronounced Puccinian milieu is slightly jarring. But then, why not? Puccini is himself regardless of the subject matter, and a drama set in the classic American West may be unusual but nonetheless satisfying once one gives it all a chance.

All that is only to affirm that "La Fanciulla" is not an opera entirely within the norms of the late Italian tradition. It demands an excellent performance, surely, in order to affirm its own special blend of subject and operatic style. That is to be had on Pentatone's 2-CD reissue of Mehta conducting the Covent Garden production with Carol Neblett  as Minnie and Placido Domingo as Dick Johnson.

What is perhaps most unusual about the recording is that it was produced in the '70s by Phillips as a quadraphonic release as well as a conventional stereo one. The Super Audio CD enables listeners with compatible equipment to listen to both versions as they were intended to sound on initial release.

I have not tried to listen to the quad version--primarily because I no longer have that option right now. But I do find the stereo version sonically superior and the performance of uniformly appealing dramatic and aesthetic quality. The soloists, chorus and orchestra do a fine job and make an excellent case for the opera.

Puccini enthusiasts will embrace this. Others will find it interesting as a sort of Italy-meets-US-folkways adventure. I am glad to have this version. It is a benchmark standard to me, though I have missed some of the other competing versions as of this juncture. A good bet.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sibelius, Symphonies 1 & 6, Thomas Sondergard, BBC National Orchestra of Wales

For some reason, in my first decade of listening to modern classical music, a teen in a rapidly changing world, I thought I was too cool to check out Sibelius. High Modernism was king in my formative years and I was so busy catching on to it that I did not consider so much many of the less abashedly "modern" contemporaries that of course in the main I now gladly treasure. By the time I was at NYU, a professor who gave me much to  think about suggested in one of the non-curricular get togethers that I should take Sibelius seriously. He was right, and so I fell under the spell of Finland's greatest composer rapidly and never went back.

As is always the case, one can get very subtle or very different interpretations of symphonic works by opening up to performances other than the one you have first grown accustomed to. And so appropriately there is a new recording of Sibelius' Symphonies 1 & 6 (Linn Records) by Thomas Sondergard and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of this release is the majestic interpretation of Sibelius' First. A fair number of versions I have heard over time. This one gives us all the ice and passion of Sibelius-as-Sibelius. It sounds less like Tchaikovsky and his "Pathetique" so much as Sibelius and his First. Not of course that Tchaikovsky was not an important influence at that point. Influence is one thing, though, and imitation quite another. Sondergard and the BBC Orchestra make the strongest case for the original strain as I have heard. And in so doing they remind us that the First is a major work in the end, not so much a pre-emptory clearing of the symphonic throat.

The Sixth is well handled, too. If it dances and bounces its way into our listening minds a bit more than other more gravitas versions, it is no less serious a treatment. If an old Colin Davis version remains to me the benchmark for this mature Sibelius triumph, it is only by a slight degree, for Sondergard has a convincing vision of the Master's music that rings true.

So this would form a great introduction to the symphonic Sibelius if for some reason you have not gotten to him yet, and it is a worthy set of new interpretations for old friends of this music, especially the triumphant reading of the First. Listen on!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ravi Shankar, Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch, Complete Version

Anyone who has appreciated Ravi Shankar in some depth knows that he was not only one of India's premiere sitarists. He was also a talented composer who innovated within classic Indian and Western-oriented forms, calling upon large ensembles of classic Indian instruments in combination often enough with Western instruments, as well as the classic Western orchestra in a series of movie soundtracks and other projects. This was a logical outgrowth of his initial involvement with the Uday Shankar Troupe in his youth. That institution featured Indian instruments and vocalists in elaborately arranged ensembles.

Of the many recorded examples of Ravi Shankar's compositional-ensemble music, Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch was one that for some reason I missed on its first release in the early 1990's. The good news is that the complete version has now been issued-reissued (East Meets West 1017). It includes for the first time the complete musical score with some 20 additional minutes added that were not initially included in the first release. It forms Vol. 5 of East Meets West "Nine Decades" series devoted to the Master's musical life.

The theater piece was originally commissioned by the Birmingham Touring Opera Company and premiered in 1989. The theme centers around the tragic results of chronic drug abuse via the story of a talented Indian dancer and his ultimate descent into delusion and death.

As is often enough the case in Ravi's mature compositional stance, both Northern (Hindustani) and Southern (Carnatic) instruments and traditions combine freely as do in this case dance styles of both regions.

The music deftly combines instruments and vocals in a multi-movement scenario that follows the joyful moments and gradual decline into infernal realms with great artistry and beauty.

It ranks up there, in my opinion, with the Master's best compositional suites. It shows a darker side to his music (necessitated by the plot of course) and a bold contrast between spiritual heights and infernal lows like no other Shankar work.

Needless to say I strongly recommend the issue to all Shankar devotees but also anyone seeking to better understand the compositional side of modern Indian classical music.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rued Langgaard, Piano Works Vol. 3, Berit Johansen Tange

The music of Danish composer Rued Langaard (1893-1952) has gradually been gaining more notice here in the States. Primarily this has been taking place as some worthwhile modern recordings have become available. A series of his Piano Works is a good case in point. I am currently in possession of the Volume 3 (DaCapo 6.220631), as played with distinction by pianist Bent Johansen Tange.

Although I have not yet had the pleasure of hearing the earlier volumes, this one gives us a worthwhile selection of works, three in first recordings. Covered are a spectrum of some seven pieces written over a substantial time period between a youthful 1917 and the fullest maturity of the mid-late-'40s. There is not surprisingly a growth to be traced from a Nordic romantic-lyric stance to more radically chromatic effusions, but most always a sprinkling of tonal memorability. As the liner notes make clear, Langgaard starts with a musical vision more than a formal sequencing.

These are pieces written not so much for immediate performances (many were not in fact performed publicly until after his death) as for the sake of a personal expressive outlet. And so the music has a kind of inner deepness more than an audience pleasing demeanor. There is often enough a virtuoso component and a very personal originality. They are sometimes modernistic in tenor, yet they also have a kind of personal determination that is heedless of the prevailing trends, and that can in fact be quite endearing to hear.

Anyone who seeks the more involved expressive possibilities of the modern period solo piano literature will I believe find in this volume a good deal to like. The performances are near-spectacular and Langaard's pianistic poeticism is not quite like any other.

Listen, do.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Franz Liszt, Berlioz Transcriptions, Feng Bian, Piano

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the first genuinely Promethean piano virtuoso. He brought a giganticism, an orchestral presence to the solo piano which in turn was made possible by the advancement in manufacture that gave the modern grand piano a brilliance and a louder, wider dynamic range than it previously had. Liszt created a body of piano literature that suited his concert and salon needs and also did a series of piano transcriptions of celebrated orchestral works of his day, opera chestnuts, Bach organ music and what have you. The orchestral transcriptions made obvious to what might have been otherwise an audience that did not understand: the Liszt and the modern grand could reproduce in pianistic terms what some of the 19th century composers from Beethoven onwards were doing for the fully evolved concert orchestra.

Berlioz and then Wagner expanded the scope and radicalized the romantic symphony orchestra while Liszt was doing the same for the piano. It was only natural that he would embark on a series of piano transcriptions of both. In today's volume we hear his Berlioz Transcriptions (Naxos 8.573710). It is a somewhat judicious assortment of the well-known: the "Dance des Sylphes de la Damnation de Faust," and several chestnuts extracted from "Sinfonie Fantastique" (the "March au supplice" and "L'idee fixe" theme); and the somewhat lesser known: the "Ouverture des Francs-Juges."

All of it is as well configured and as well played by pianist Feng Bian as one might hope.

This one is serious and also lots of fun! Berlioz is transformed and much good it does him.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Frederick Delius, Arnold Bax, Choral Music, The Carice Singers, George Parris

An album collection of Choral Music (Naxos 8.573695) by pre-modernist, sometimes quasi-impressionist English composers Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and Arnold Bax (1883-1953) would first off demand an excellent choral group to make it all shine. We most happily get this with the Carice Singers under George Parris. They are angelic, well balanced and have sopranos that launch the high notes with bell-like clarity and beauty.

They handle the program with impeccable sonority and musicality, bringing out the spirit and letter of the music. There are subtle folk elements buried within these pieces, and often enough a kind of pastoral modern archaicism that only adds to the charm. Both Delius and Bax show a flair for s-a-t-b possibilities.  Most of the music is sung a cappella. The sole exception is Bax's "I Sing of a Maiden that is Makeless," which includes well conceived support from harp, cello and double bass.

There are 11 short Delius works, all atmospheric and enchanting. The earliest works are unabashedly romantic but all benefit from a lyric originality and a sure sense of effective part writing.

Bax is no less appealing with three fairly long songs and two lengthy works in his "Five Greek Folksongs" (1942) and "Mater Ora Filium" (1921).

Perhaps Bax has a slight edge in his harmonic sophistication. Both however show a consummate mastery of the choral idiom and a sort of natural feel for rustic settings and their effective tone-painted realizations.

This one is sheer pleasure. Anyone who likes the Anglo school and/or loves some well sung early contemporary fare will find it all very worthwhile. Recommended!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Yassen Vodenitcharov, Blue Echo

Yassan Vodenitcharov, Bulgarian born modernist composer of worth, brings to us some six illuminating examples of his music on Blue Echo (Gega New 395). His current association with IRCAM in Paris all but guarantees that he espouses some form of High Modernism, and he does. What he is not however is someone out of the "bleep and bloop" serial and post-serial style of pointillistic neo-hockett. There are multiple lines to be heard, understandably, but they can be homophonic or in multiple parallels. One of course does not often find a neo-Webernian approach carrying the day in contemporary music these days, and so too Vodenitcharov goes into the fray with his own sense of sound clusters, color blocks and explorations of personal, well mapped terrains.

The works themselves employ a quite varied instrumentation. "The Ribbon of Mobius" features two pianists and two percussionists, "Blue Echo (Concerto for Trumpet and String Orchestra)" is indeed for that, "Bacchus and Ariadne" utilizes bassoon and celeste, "Trajectories of Silence" has the unusual quartet instrumentation of two mandolins, mandola and guitar, "Lamento" is for orchestra with voice, and "Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra" is self-explanatory.

I would not venture to suggest that this music has some of the dynamic thrust of the new improvisation style currently practiced by some Americans, Europeans and Japanese, mostly because there may be a convergence that is coincidental or not. Nonetheless there are expressive similarities, though Vodenitcharov's examples here are more overtly planned and architecturally framed works with some of the high modern rigor of methods holding sway often enough, if my ears are a good judge.

Each work is unto itself and yet the overall impression is consistent and rewarding. I will not run down my impression of each here. Listening is key of course. Suffice to say that Vodenicharov comes to us in his own special way.

Any following modernist new music trends would be well served by this volume. It is something to immerse oneself in, to study, to enjoy and appreciate with a little effort.

Another one I do recommend as important listening.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Franz Schmidt, Symphony No. 2, Richard Strauss, Dreaming By the Fireside, Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) and his Symphony No. 2 (Sony Classic 88985355522) have been victims of vicious critical attacks since Schmidt wrote the work in 1913. Yet it (the symphony) tends to be subject to some attention via performances and recordings to this day. Perhaps not nearly enough?

Wikipedia calls the score reminiscent of Strauss and Reger with some of the heroic largess of Bruckner, and my ears hear that but to the point more of an originality in the late-romantic realm in which Schmidt worked.

The new recording I have been hearing, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, does much to make a case for its heroic complexities. This is a late-romantic Austro-Hungarian work that when well played as it is on the new recording comes very much into being with lyric tenderness and power (and I hear as much Mahler's influence as the others but Schmidt is here very much Schmidt). This has been described as a kind of pastoral symphony. I can hear that.

An added bonus is Richard Strauss's short orchestral interlude from his not often performed opera Intermezzo, "Dreaming By the Fireside." It is a worthwhile tidbit and serves to remind us how Schmidt is another thing apart from Strauss. If nothing else you hear a much different harmonic palette, even if both have a large and lush orchestral carpeting in common. The variational aspect of the inner movement of Schmidt's Second is of a very different nature than the tone-poem sequentiality of Strauss.

So what we have s a very stimulating and rewarding program. The care with which Schmidt is elaborated marks this as an extraordinarily fine version, a very best, and gloriously sound staged in ways we scarcely hope could be bettered. Kudos!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Purcell, Ayres & Songs From Orpheus Brittannicus, Harmonia Sacra & Complete Organ Music, Jill Feldman

Henry Purcell (1650-1695) was one of England's most gifted composers. He had a melodic brilliance and a sense of lyrical form that set him above or at least equal to the greatest of his era. His songs are unforgettable, and then so are his instrumental works. You can hear a very generous sampling of some excellent but not so well know works on Ayres & Songs from Orpheus Brittannicus, Harmonia Sacra & Complete Organ Music (Outhere-Arcanna A430).

Jill Feldman graces the program with her richly ornate and satisfyingly projective soprano voice. I have grown up associating Purcell's songs with the countertenor Alfred Deller thanks to a number of fine recordings I obtained early on. Ms. Feldman brings her own sensibilities to bear on the musical program and after a couple of listens to acclimate, I ended up hearing her interpretations as very right in their own way, quite lovely in fact.

She is joined and in some cases spelled by Nigel North on archlute, Sarah Cunningham on bass viol, and Davitt Moroney on organ. The spare period instrumentation works quite admirably on the vocal works--where lute and viol bring out the accompanymental structural bones

Monday, July 17, 2017

Volti San Francisco, This is What Happened

The choral realm of new music remains a potent idiom when approached creatively. Volti San Francisco gives us a hearing of five contemporary choral works of interest on their CD This is What Happened (Innova 964).

The music covers a spectrum from high modern event worlds to the modern new tonality. Robin Estrada's "Paghahandog" is an example of the former while Stacy Garrop's "Songs of Lowly Life" the latter. From there we are treated to Mark Winges' "Canticles of Rumi," John Muehleisen's " knowing...," and finally Shawn Crouch's "Paradise."

The whole entails a kind of freeze-frame snapshot of where choral music is in the modern present. It is something most certainly worth your time if you seek to follow the new and not just the already enshrined history of the new.

Volti are consummate artists. They deserve your attention.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dalia Raudonikyte With, Solitarius

New music requires new composers, of course. And of those there are no shortages. Virtually every day I find the music of somebody I do not know in front of me. And many of them surprise me in good ways. I am lucky to be alive right now for music. Even if it impoverishes me. What is joy worth? One cannot translate it into monetary terms. So my life is very rich on the level of gratitude, much less so in some other ways. C'est la vie.

Today we have another example: the music of Daliya Raudonikyte With, a she, Norwegian maybe? The recent album of her music, Solitarius (New Focus 186) gives us pause. It is a compendium of some six works, four involving a solo instrument, one a kind of duet, and one a chamber orchestra work.

In each case there is a literary quotation as a springboard--Thomas Wolfe, Picabia, Virginia Woolf, Chopin, Stefan Zweig. What results is distinctive, carefully sonorous music that stays within to reverberate with your being. There is sonic acuity, deliberation, gesture, and a special envelope full of the present.

Expect very appropriate ventures into extended techniques, a contemporary modernism that has more than the norm of invention, often far more. "Grues et Nix," the single orchestral work, has a kind of uncanny opening onto a personal sonic mapping of what Woolfe declaims as "Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night." This work is in its very own way as evocative as something like Ives' "Central Park in the Dark," and without sounding like Ives at that, but equally home-spun, native individual like.

The other works each have a particular personal With touch, whether it be "Solitarius" for clarinet, "Ventus" for alto sax and electronics, "FCH" for piano, "Primo cum lumine solis" for guitar, or "Idem non semper idem" for alto sax. Nothing is tentative, even if nothing seems exactly formal in some scientistic way, and so much the better because With is expression first perhaps, structure second?

In the end it is all of course about the listening experience. With gives us an excellent one while being very much herself.

So I do suggest this one as rewarding, essential in its own way as music of this very second!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

New Music for Clarinet, Another Look, F. Gerard Errante

The clarinet as a virtuoso solo instrument has been an established fact in new music for many years. As if to sum up the current state of the art in such matters, F. Gerard Errante distinguishes himself admirably and spearheads an anthology of provocative contemporary modern chamber works on New Music for Clarinet, Another Look (Ravello 7941). It is a reissue of some excellent performances originally available on LPs in the '70s and '80s on CRI and New World Records.

Errante has agility and remarkable tone control. He can dive artistically into extended techniques and revert to more conventional articulations with ease and grace. Indeed his formidable and imaginative approach seem tailor-made for the works on the program.

They are lively, exciting and varied in the most capable hands of Errante. Especially welcome to me are two compositions by new music-jazz icon clarinetist and composer William O. Smith. His "Solo for Clarinet with Delay System" and "Asana" (the latter making use of the MXR Digital Delay and Pitch Transposer) remind us that he has long established an original voice for himself.

Vladimir Ussachevsky's "Four Studies for Clarinet and EVI" (the latter an electronic keyboard) brings us some classic early modernism from a composer who broke so much ground in modern American new music.

But the music continues into equally interesting areas with exceptional performances of Adolphus Hailstork's "A Simple Caprice," (with Lee Jordon-Anders at the piano), Dana Wilson's "Piece for Clarinet Alone," Errante's own "Souvenirs de Nice," and finally the tumultuously irrepressible "The Dissolution of the Serial," which chaotically and beutifully does exactly that via brilliant performances by William Albright on piano and Errante on tenor sax.

It is a re-release that fully rewards us with a program of all-too-neglected music in remarkable performances. Errante soars and the music does not fail to enchant! Need I say more?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Arvo Part Live, Choral and Orchestral Works, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, The Hilliard Ensemble, Muncher Rundfunkorchester

The Estonian Arvo Part has the distinction of being one of the handful of living composers who is most influential and celebrated throughout the world. If you by chance do not know his music, today's CD would be an excellent place to start. And at any rate it is doubtless an excellent place to aurally dwell  whether you are a devoted follower or a newcomer to his music.

Arvo Part Live (BR Klassik 900319) combines contributions from the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Munchner Rundfunkorchester, under the various direction of Peter Dijkstra, Robert King, Ulf Schirmer and Marcello Viotti.

The performances are culled from various concerts recorded between 2000 and 2011. The selected works covered on the CD are well matched and not entirely what you might expect.

What is most unexpected and welcome is the opening orchestral "Collage Uber B-A-C-H" from his earlier period. There is unabashed modernism to be heard, yet there is no mistaking the Partian sensitivity to time and place that continually marks his ongoing originality. Here the music is based on the B-A-C-H motive but also a transformation of a Saraband from Bach's "English Suite."

Part's period of crisis from 1968-1976  ultimately gave rise to the special "old-in-the-new" style we hear so effectively and performatively in the works that follow on this program. We are treated to competitively enchanting versions of "Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen" for a capella choir, "Cecilia, vergine romana" for choir and orchestra, "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" for string orchestra and bells, and "Litany - Prayers of St John Chrysostom for Each Hour of the Day and Night" for soloists, choir and orchestra.

These works provide the key in microcosm to all that has given us pause and wonder in the special spirituality that is the mature Part for us.

This is a fine collection that everyone should probably hear. Certainly anyone who follows new music today needs to know Part, but then anyone of a general classical bent should also, and, why not, just everyone out there who loves music as well. Confirmed Part appreciators will find in this anthology many reasons to own it, even if you already have versions of some of these works,

A triumphant offering! Listen.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Derek Charke, In Sonorous Falling Tones, Wired! Ensemble, Mark Hopkins

Canadian composer-flautist Derek Charke chimes in with four choice compositions featuring the Wired! Ensemble and the composer as flute soloist. We have in this offering exciting, dynamic modern music of a high caliber.

The first, "In Sonorous Falling Tones" is a concerto for flute and bass flute with much going on and an especially bracing part for the flutes. "Lachrymae" is a not unrelated work for solo piccolo.

"What Do the Birds Think?" follows, a post-Darmstadtian thing of great imagination and beauty for chamber ensemble. The music is abstracted and generated out of the key words "remembrance," "nostalgia," "migration," "birdcalls" and "isolated places." Various moods and mysterious, almost unconscious-unveiling sounds create a world that intrigues and fascinates.

"Warning! Gustnadoes Ahead" closes out the program. It is flute centered at times, based on various environmental sounds as processed and represented in instrumental transformations.

The totality of the four compositions mark Derek Charke as a composer of beautifully crafted importance--and a master flautist of great virtuosity and originality. There is a great deal here to savor.

Definitely recommended!

Monday, July 10, 2017

John Luther Adams, Canticles of the Holy Wind, The Crossing, Donald Nally

By now it is clear that John Luther Adams has created a body of work that represents a pinnacle of development in the post-minimalist tonal ambient realm today. His music consistently gives off a sort of poetic glow that evidences his extraordinary sensitivity and brilliance. He knows what he wants to hear and what that is seems very right.

The latest, a long, mostly a capella choral work that features the remarkable vocal group the Crossing under Donald Nally, is by no means an exception to this trend. Far from it. Canticles of the Holy Wind  (Cantaloupe 21131) delivers a paen to hope, for the resurgence of humanity through her-his place in the natural cosmos of earth and universe. Things on earth have become pretty grim, he is saying, but our ultimate destiny is beyond where we are. The music represents that place we can and should occupy in the creation as it were, as perhaps an integral part rather that an adversary.

Adams makes full us of the sonority of the Crossing, with long sustains, chordal drones, multipart cosmic counterpoint and rhythmic acrobatics by various sections at various times. The latter is underscored by the subtle percussion of Amy Garapic. There is continual movement and growth. And amidst the mostly diatonic beauty and chromatically expansive descending figures, there is a sort of musical narrative that signifies in tones what one might not say easily in words.

The sectional logic has dimensionality and forward thrust. We never feel the lack of change yet all relates organically each to the other.

It is a universe that centers around what voices can give us when imagination and timbral care have an important place for composer and performers alike.

This may not be an absolute John Luther Adams masterpiece, but it is very absorbing and beautiful music that will put the serious listener in a special musical world as very few other composers today can do.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Milica Djordjevic, Deutscher Musikrat, Edition Zeitgenossische Musik

The music of Milica Djordjevic? From the Deutscher Musikrat, Edition Zeitgenossische Musik (Wergo 6422 2) volume now available in the US and Canada,  we have a very kinetic-high modern expanded tonality program of a definite abstract ambiance. Performed by the Arditti Quartet and a distinguished cast of chamber musicians, the seven compositions take us far and wide into avant garde territory. This in the end is music beyond Darmstadt, a determined breaking out into the realm of energy and performativity.

A musically precocious childhood in Belgrade led to an interest in  theatre, painting, physics and in the end composition. Her music reflects biographical elements such as growing up in war-torn Serbia, the challenge of realizing a thoroughly immersive musical composition, the incorporation of failure into the final result, and the search for a wider palette of sound beyond conventional and typical extended techniques for instruments.  She is a complex soul and no brief and glib summary does her justice.

The music has an expressivity that to my ears aligns it as much to European New Music Improv as much as it settles into a concert high modernism. The wealth of content on the CD defies easy description. Suffice to say that there is an impressive depth and breadth to be heard, a fluid eloquence that marks Ms. Djordjevic as a highly talented artist who has embraced the new and found herself an original place within it.

A definite must for those seeking to understand and embrace new high modernist trends.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Erik Satie, Musique d'Entracte, Almost Forgotten Masterpieces, Fumio Yasuda

If musical life is sometimes like being an outfielder in baseball, where you have to "call" and catch every somewhat ambiguous fly ball, so too I field every review on these blogs and hope there are no sudden gusts of wind or dazzles of sunlight that would confuse my tracking of the ball and its trajectory. There seems no difficulty for me in fielding the album before me, Erik Satie and Musique d'Entracte, Almost Forgotten Masterpieces (Music Edition Winter & Winter 910 241-2). I love Satie deeply and so I am predisposed toward the volume, in that my expectations were high.

No disappoinment here, happily. What we have is a nicely judicious selection of more-or-less lesser-known Satie miniatures arranged for piano and prepared piano (Furnio Yasuda), clarinet-bass clarinet-saxophone (Joachim Badenhorst), and cello-voice (Julie Laderach).

The 13 short works in the anthology include "Cinema," which Satie wrote for the film Entre-Acte. Then there's "Dance of the Man and the Woman" from Relache, a brief, quietly articulated prepared-piano centric version of  "Vexations" and a smart peppering of other short works, many originally conceived for solo piano but given very sympathetic treatment by the trio. They aren't afraid to introduce a smattering of free improv or jazz-type solos now and again, add some Bill Evans-like rubatos or otherwise treat the ever-varied, brilliant works to more adventurous touches than one might expect.

Once the music is over, you might like me want to play the whole thing again right then and there. It is a worhwhile approach to some of Satie's most advanced, quirky and/or lyrical masterworks.The glowing re-creations help remind us how timeless his music can be. Most of this might have been written yesterday. Yet of course it was not. Yasuda and trio bring it all alive for us, beautifully.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Desyatnikov, Sketches to Sunset, Russian Seasons

The music of Destyatnikov has imagination, warmth and modern tonal folk fire. At least that is what I feel when listening to the two-work CD Sketches to Sunset / Russian Seasons (Quartz 2122).

"Russian Seasons" (2000) is divided into 12 vignettes for violin (Roman Mints), voice (Yana Ivanilova) and chamber orchestra (Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under Philipp Chizhevsky). It was written for Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, who gave it the first performance. Lake District Russian folk themes form the basis of the music. There are some moments that have a genetic affinity with the neo-classic-folk period of Stravinsky, especially in its modular rhythmic liveliness and thematic organicism. But then you discover an overall originality that transcends influence yet remains very much Russian. It is a work that captivates and enchants in the most worthy ways.

"Sketches to Sunset" (1992), in first recording for Mints, Alexey Goribal and the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra under Chizhevsky, kicks off with a rhapsodic mysterioso folk-laced theme for violin and orchestra. It is segued to a Russianesque quasi-Jewish sounding tango theme based on "Death in Venice." Onward it goes from there, touching down poignantly on various memorable moods and modes. The sunset has an almost sultry air to it in Destyanikov's hands, yet there is regret and a biblical underpinning ("Absolom's Death") that feels ultimately Russian-Jewish in fascinating ways. The music is based on the Desyanikov's score to the film "Sunset" which takes place in Odessa before the revolution. A primal sort of experience of the haze of time seems palpable in the thematic sequencing. One is left holding the air of the present as the spell the music casts comes to a close.

The two works stand out as very characterful, strongly tonal and giving off with originally transformative pre-modern and post-modern elements.

Any Russophile will respond well to this music I would think. Desyatnikov has an inimitably tabula rasa way, yet there is strong tradition paradoxically present, too. A definite joy to immerse oneself in!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford, Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 1, Christopher Howell

The world of Charles Villiers Stanford (1857-1924) I'll admit is not very familiar to me. He was as big a name composer in his day in Great Britain as virtually anyone. Yet his music is not so well known today. I was surprised at a release of his choral music a while ago (type his name in the search box) and favorably reviewed it. His music was much more engaging than I had imagined it would be.

And now we get to hear his Complete Works for Piano in the 2-CD first installment, Vol. 1 (Sheva Collection 115) as aptly performed by Christopher Howell. There is plenty to like on the first go-round. We are exposed to "Six Waltzes," "Three Waltzes," "Six Characteristic Pieces," "Five Caprices," two sets of "Six Sketches," "Three Fancies," "Five Irish Folk-tunes," and "Twenty-Four Preludes in all the keys." A number of the works are in first recordings.

These are well-constructed pieces, surprisingly post-romantic. They eschew virtuoso technique and flashiness, ending up something like a British Chabrier, with the emphasis on invention and straightforward directness. These are not works of a modernist sort, of course. But they do precurse composers like Vaughan-Williams and Holst. They are not stuffy nor typically Victorian. He shows a kind of affability and tunefulness I was not at all expecting to hear.

I must say I did not anticipate hearing disarmingly charming music of this kind from Stanford. Anyone who wants a wealth of unpretentious pianistics would do well to hear this, as would any Anglophile. It is very much a pleasure to hear. I will be covering Vols. Two and Three in a while, so stay tuned.