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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Dominick Argento, The Andree Expedition

The song cycle has become somewhat rarified on the New Music front. There do not seem to be so many of them compared to earlier epics. This is no place to speculate on the reasons right now.

There are notable exceptions. The song cycles of US composer Dominick Argento (b. 1927) are one. We hear two on The Andree Expedition (Naxos 8.559828), the title cycle plus "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf." Music takes over when speech can go no further, believes Argento, and both of these cycles demonstrate that idea well. They extend the meaning of the texts in ways that speech alone cannot, shading them in pastels and hard-edged outlines, underscoring in music what the words suggest, creating the atmosphere, giving a deeper setting for the story as it unfolds.

The music in this Naxos edition is performed quite capably by baritone Brian Mulligan and pianist Timothy Long. The pianist is very sensitively attuned to the ever-present commentary and sometimes the dimensional contrast his accompanying role calls for. Mulligan has a highly dramatic approach, which fares especially well in the softer, more reflective sections. When he is at forte and especially above that his is a rather hard sonance. It takes some getting used to. The music warrants it in its extraordinary depictions.

In the end though we come for Argento's music.

And we get it in all its impactful drama. "The Andree Expedition" (1982) is based on diaries and letters surrounding the tragic balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897. "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf" (1974) culls eight entries as the vocal text, filled with self-confessional candor. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975.

The title work consists of 13 songs that relate one to another. The human struggle against daunting odds forms the core of the music and text. A sample from one of the participant's accounts: "It is indeed a wonderful journey through the night. I am cold but will not wake the two sleepers. They need rest. If any of them should succumb it might be because I had tired them out." It is a bleak account of a bleak disaster. The music reflects regret and dilemma in a modern expressionist way. It has a presence that shows Argento's flair for the possibilities of vocal declamation, drawing out the implications and setting them squarely into the music. The singer personifies each of the three balloonists and so gives us a sort of trifold narrative of the unfolding disaster.

The Virginia Woolf diary cycle has a slightly different slant, as Ms. Wolfe's inner and outer life come into conflict and create various mood pieces and a creative struggle to harness it all somehow. It complements the expedition song cycle well.

In all we get nearly 80 minutes of Argento song drama at its most distinctive. It is at times VERY expressive, and so not exactly light fare to put on as background. Perhaps that is inevitable by nature of the subject matter alone. The music demands your attention, then rewards it. For a modest Naxos investment one gets a provocative introduction to Argento's modern take on the song cycle. That is something very illuminating and moving. All modern song students will get real substance here.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Yuuko Shiokawa, Andras Schiff, Bach, Busoni, Beethoven

Fine  chamber works played with the ultimate artistry? It is like an excellent vintage of wine. If you know what you seek, you get it at the first taste, so with violinist Yuuko Shiokawa and pianist Andras Schiff in their new recording of Bach, Busoni, Beethoven (ECM New Series 2510). At the first listen you know right away that you are in the presence of exceptional music making.

And there is no letup, regardless of how many times you listen. The first reason for that is an unusual and worthy mix of works: Bach's Sonata No. 3 in E major for Violin and Keyboard, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and his Sonata No. 2 in e minor for violin and piano, and Beethoven's Sonata No. 10 in G major for Violin and Piano. The big surprise perhaps is the excellence of the Busoni, reminding us that he was no slouch, not at all. It is a fine work that fits in well with the sublimity of the Bach and the heroic inventiveness of the Beethoven.

And the performances are exceptional without exception. Shiokawa plays it all with a sweetness and light and Schiff responds with equally inspired pianism. The Bach gives notice that there indeed can be a reflective and subtle reading of the beautiful lines of Bach at his finest. There is plenty of mindful feeling in all the performances, but also a kind of transcendence, so that you grasp the feeling yet also join in on the musical journey to ever more subtle concordances.

It is a remarkable disc. The music sings away without fail. The compositions are brilliant, each in their own way; the performances as musically profound as you could ask for. This makes a fabulous holiday gift for yourself or someone you care about! Phenomenal.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Trevor Babb, Warmth, including Steve Reich, Electric Counterpoint, etc.

The idea of new music works for multiple overdubbed electric guitars has surely been in the air a long time. Some of Fripp and Eno's works for guitar and delay in the '70s gave us striking guitar-orchestral density and beauty. The real-time breakthrough of such music for formally articulated multi-guitars can be traced back to Steve Reich's "Electronic Counterpoint," written for 12 prerecorded electric guitars and 2 bass guitars plus live guitar in 1987 and first recorded by Pat Metheny. From there followed other works. Guitarist Trevor Babb performs his own version of the Reich and other guitar ensemble pieces on the recent CD Warmth (Innova 972).

The Reich as done is different enough from the Metheny version that it stands alongside, as good or better. That is saying a great deal. Either version reminds us how vintage Reich is superlative, so much ahead of some of the more uninspired minimalism that existed and exists alongside his music as to be altogether other. Some of the imitators are like schmutz in search of a mince meat pie to give them life. Reich is the pie itself, fashioned and cooked to a golden brown, perfect for what it is meant to be.The music stands out now as it did then. Babb gives it that extra new twist and we are back into it like the years have not passed.

And the virtue of having a really vibrant version of the Reich alongside other multiple guitar pieces illuminates those works and gives the Reich another context.

So we are treated to five other new music compositions for multiple electrics, each one different from the other as they are to the Reich. So that driving counterpoint of the Reich contrasts with sustained guitar new music chorales and ruminative or exploratory guitar richness.

We get good things to experience with Paul Kereke's "Trail," David Lang's "Warmth" for two guitars, James Tenney's "Septet," Trevor Babb's own "Grimace" and Carl Testa's "Slope 2."

It is in the end a program any electric guitarist of a progressive sort should eat up, and their friends, too, of course. (No, not eat up their friends, I hope. The music!) Yet it is also New Music worthy of the name--something people who ordinarily do not associate with electric guitar sounds, or not modern classical applications of it, will find stimulating and worthwhile. Hear it, do.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Don Juan, Paavo Jarvi, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

Richard Strauss (1864-1945) when I was young had reached the very top as far as "modern" ("late romantic") star composers of the day.  Bruckner was pretty obscure in comparison; Mahler was rising quickly and eventually surpassed Strauss in popularity, in terms of performances and recordings, but when "Also Sprach Zarathustra" was a main theme for the movie "2001, A Space Odyssey" Strauss was at his peak for household folks. If he is somewhat more in eclipse now, he still at his best is a consummate master, a phenomenal orchestrator and brilliantly imaginative inventor of complex programmatic form. If there is a handful of the best of the late romantic giganticists, he is surely up there at the very top.

The operas, the late songs, and the best of the tone poems are as worthwhile today as anything. My high school music teacher made me aware of "Ein Heldenleben" so long ago and I am grateful. "Don Juan" is up there with the very best as well. Now I've spent time listening to some of the classic versions of both by the likes of Furtwangler, Klemperer, Toscanini, and you might say I've been spoiled by the very best. The truth, though, is that the benchmark performances of the past do have a common sort of bombast that is exciting to hear, but the 2017 ears can be ready for other takes on what can be done.

Enter Paavo Jarvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in their recent recorded performances of "Ein Heldenleben" and "Don Juan" (RCA 88985391762). There is sterling sound, the full spectrum of orchestral breadth and girth, a passion and chutzpah these works demand, but also just a shade less of the overt bombast and a greater attention to detailed balance than the classic old versions.

And so perhaps this is how we now might best hear the two works, slightly less intoxicated with the sensuously over-the-top, a bit more Apollonian a stance, in other words. And I must say I am quite satisfied with that on this fine coupling.

If by chance you do not know these masterworks, the Jarvi may be the right place to start. If you are like me and have revelled in some of the classic recorded versions, this is refreshing, a less heart-on-the-sleeves approach that gives the ears something that may be a more contemporary take on it all. "Ein Heldenleben" is indispensable for any student of 20th century orchestral trends, but then "Don Juan" adds to it. So I recommend this one heartily.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Komitas, Seven Songs, Lusine Grigoryan

The Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) has the distinction of being one of the most lyrical and folk-rooted "modern" exponents of the unforgettable character of the age-old Armenian ways of music making. Like the late Armenian-American Hovhannes at times, he translates the songful traditional idiom into classical terms while eschewing sentimentalizing or romanticizing strains.

We hear the unsullied purity of pianistic means that Komitas embodies so well on Lusine Grigoryan's recorded solo debut Seven Songs (ECM New Series 2514), which follows on the heels of Grigoryan and the Gurdjieff Ensemble's folk instrument Komitas renditions (ECM New Series 2451) that I happily covered when it came out.

The Komitas we hear on the present collection has a directness yet a well conceived pianism that makes full use of the inventively long melodic paths that wind their way through the music in minor diatonic freshness that in a very Armenian way contrasts with the Mid-Eastern and Eastern European raised seventh, harmonic vertically gestural minor modes we are used to hearing.

Five compositional groupings grace the program on the CD. It shows a Komitas firmly expository of Armenian essence, mostly simple but never facile, demanding a poetic interpretation Ms. Grigoryan provides with consistency and real eloquence. Thus we are treated to ideal renditions of the title collection "Seven Songs" plus "Maho Shoror," "Seven Dances," "Pieces for Children" and "Toghik."

The inspiration and melodic unfolding never flag. Lusine handles it all with a sparkling luminescence.

For all folk-classical minor mode aficionados, all lovers of things Armenian, all who love Komitas this is essential fare. Truly lovely!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

J. S. Bach, Suiten fur Violoncello, Thomas Demenga

There has been a flurry of activity, a spate of recordings of Bach's justly celebrated Suiten fur Violoncello. It was considered a masterpiece for centuries, yet unlike say the "Brandenburg Concertos" was not as widely appreciated by the general public as it seems to be now. But then there weren't so many versions available in the recorded medium as there are today.

Part of this has to do with a contemporary musical stance that appreciates a bare, unadulterated solo intimacy that contrasts with the past emphasis on making an unholy din in a world of giganticism, though of course that possibility is not so much in eclipse as it is now more emphatically one way of expression among many. Silvestrov's contemporary solo cello music is a great example of the micro-ensemble currency that thrives today. See yesterday's review of that music on this blog. Of course solo piano music has been ever in demand among classical listeners since its advent, but the solo string instrument seems ever more an object of heightened interest and acceptance.

The very latest recording of Bach's Suites, beautifully performed by cellist Thomas Demenga (ECM New Series 2 CD: 2530/31), realizes the full scope of the multiple movement music in ways that help raise the bar for flowing, singingly lyrical yet briskly robust versions. The full artistry of the cello solo has never been quite so apparent as here. This performance is not merely a kind of lab for aspiring cellists as it is a totally realized, deeply living and breathing art form for anybody and everybody who wishes to be uplifted by the master composers of our heritage. I have reviewed on these pages one or two other recordings of the Suites that reach similar heights, but all in all this current set has a consistency that is hard to match.

Demenga previously recorded the Suites for the ECM New Series between 1986 and 2002, interspersed with contemporary works for cello. This second look at the music is served as it were full strength and gives Demenga the chance to delve ever deeper into the full possibilities of expression the Suites offer to a master interpreter.

He very much rises to the occasion with a sort of inner insight into the music that is most rare. Yes, he is technically flawless at all times, yet this is no mere platform for cello artistry. It uncovers the kind of flowing inevitability of each movement with a conviction and an inner comprehension that sets these performances apart from the merely engaged performances we might hear today.

The phrasings come alive with just the right amount of rubato to heighten the gestural impact, but never to lose sight of the connectivity of Bach's musical language. Those movements that demand concentrated forward momentum both sing and drive ahead with exciting energy and poise. Those that are more contemplative linger with thoughtful emphases.

Demenga's  deeply rich, beautifully full woody tone comes across from the first bars of the music to the very end. Manfred Eicher captures it wonderfully well, so that the whole affirms a melding of cello timbral depth and musical affirmation.

If you can only have one version of Bach's perennial music, this could well be it. It would be my choice right now. Those who feel good about gathering a number of contrasting versions in the personal stacks might well choose this one too, as a synthetic marvel.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Valentin Silvestrov, Hieroglyphen der Nacht, Anja Lechner, Agnes Vesterman

Modern new music works for one or two cellists. . . if you imagine in your head what that might sound like, you may be surprised when you hear Valentin Silvestrov's Hieroglyphics der Nacht (ECM New Series 2389). It is a series of six works, four for cello and in one case simultaneously sounded tamtams featuring Anja Lechner, and two for cello duo with the addition of Agnes Vesterman. The release happily coincides with Silvestrov's recent 80th birthday. He sounds much younger than that, ever youthful!

Silvestrov is a composer most acutely aware of the sonic possibilities that are limited only by his fertile imagination, so that this music is expansive and deeply resonant, ambient yet focused on the notes themselves as well as harmonics and other careful interweavings of extended and more standard techniques. He may see himself as a kind of "coda" to music history. Yet we who listen feel the march of time, a moving forward in the music that may bring with it some of the luggage of the past, yet the trip is not at all backwards. It is moving ahead.

Silvestrov began his composing career as an avowed high modernist in Soviet Russia (despite general governmental hostility to such things), then came to realize that "the most important lesson of the avant-garde was to be free of all preconceived ideas--including those of the avant-garde." And so in time his music evolved into what he calls his "metaphorical style," or "meta-music." Sometimes that involves a conversation of the present with the past.

Yet in these works for single and duo cello there are concentric gestural focal points that continually move forward with a poetic deliberation. Lechner and then Lechner and Vesterman bring determined clarity and perfect execution to the atmospherics that are understandably greatly heightened by Manfred Eicher's sympathetically complementary sound staging. Lechner notes that the solo pieces especially play with the idea of two alternate musical personas that engage one against the other like shadow and light.  Throughout this program the one out of the two feeling can show its forward momentum to the deep listener in time. It did for me. So I think for you, also.

The duo works are written as if for one extended cello, or cello "four hands," where the interlocking parts sound together closely as one expanded voice in space. "2.VI.1810. . . zurn Geburtstag R. A. Schumann" evokes a would-be lockstep, harmonically anchored allusion to the music of Schumann's making but as if heard across the vast distance of time, a ghostly vision, a rubato that transmits as if a short wave radio signal emanating from far away, a there-not-there mist of sound more than a real-time presence. This is musical poetics of a high order.

One could go on at greater length about the impact of each work. The liner notes to the album wax on about such things perhaps far better than my distanced connection to this remarkable music can do. I have perhaps the disadvantage of dis-local participation with such music, yet my distance I do believe helps me evaluate how such music sounds to the well-tempered listener not conjoined in the everyday discourse of the emanation points. So when I feel the magic inherent in this music and its considerably focused and inspired performance, it is I hope what you may well also feel as part of the relational yet distanced ears of the world.

So for all you potential listeners out there, whether you love the cello and its many sound worlds as I do, or you are neutral and primarily seeking out music that is worthwhile, Silvestrov and his extraordinarily accomplished cello playing concretizers give you a world of true magic on this one. After a short time you start forgetting how much has gone into making this recording so compelling and instead enter another universe of human sound and the associative thoughts those sounds give rise to. It is as of you have become immersed in the middle of a super musical particle collider where YOU become happily penetrated with sublime aurality. Really.

Stunning music in any case. Adopt these works into your musical family, by all means. Strongly recommended.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Longleash, Passage, Modern Trio Music by Trapani, Iannotta, Watanabe, Magdaleno, Filidei

The trio Longleash is a formidable one. They step forward dramatically with Passage (New Focus Recordings 180), a program of very modernistic piano trio works by five composers, all younger than I am. All were born between 1973 and 1984, so they are relatively young. The music has a pronounced high modern panache, and a special attention to "register, tone production, texture" as the liners put it, in other words sound color and extended techniques when appropriate. The music is thoroughly episodic with irregular and punctuated entrances and exits in the idiom of the avant guard chamber outlook. It is music of extended tonality and expanded gravitation trajectory, not, in other words, tonal in any conventional sense, but not necessarily purely atonal, either, for the most part.

The trio instrumentalists are put through their paces and handle the complexities with assurance and exceptional musicianship, so that the core of the music comes through with a speech-like naturalness, with phrasings that work together for a cohesive horizontal and vertical logic that is clear and directionally artful.

Longleash is named after the CIA Cold War program known as Operation Long Leash, which was dedicated to disseminating US avant garde works throughout Europe. Of course the name illustrates the ambiguity of the functional presence of the avant movement in modern society. The trio is comprised of Pala Garcia on violin, John Popham on cello and Renate Rohlfing on piano. They according to the liners are "inspired by music with an unusual sonic beauty, an inventive streak, and a truthful cultural voice."

That is surely true of the works on this album and Longleash rises to the occasion with superbly musical interpretations. None of the composers are exactly household names, but each provides music that together forms a cohesive whole as to general approach while each showing true inventive individuality.

So there is real substance and serious aural remapping of the trio terrain with the program at hand. It begins with Christopher Trapani's "Passing Through, Staying Put," and from there we hear Clara Iannotta's "Il colore dell'ombra," Yukiko Watanabe's "ver_flies_sen," Juan de Dios Magdaleno's "Strange Attractors," and finally Francesco Filidei's "Corde Vuote." We may seemingly be a great distance from Haydn's Piano Trios and indeed we are. Yet the idea of such a configuration as a viable constant remains.

The color capabilities of each instrument as well as the ensemble as a whole is primary to this lively and very musically progressive collection of trio works. Longleash brings us exemplary performances one could hardly imagine being bettered and in the process allows us to hear just how exciting and ear-opening modern chamber music can be.

Passage is indeed an avenue, a path, an opening into the latest New Music for Piano Trio and though perhaps not destined for mass consumption, even if it should be, is a real triumph for both Longleash and the composers involved. I recommend it highly.

. .

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Danish String Quartet, Last Leaf

Today, a leisurely walk down a different sort of folksy rooted path that gives us much to experience. There are brambles and thickets going past our forward movement but the path is well marked and goes its distance in a straightforward way. I allude to the CD at hand this morning, the Danish String Quartet and their album Last Leaf (ECM New Series 2550).

This is a extraordinarily well knit and adventuresome ensemble. For this new album they devote their attention to Nordic folk forms, specially created arrangements of elaborate folk fiddling and songful artfulnesses, some going back countless eons, whether Christmas tunes or dance fare. There is a unity of mood and purpose in the entire program overall, one that shows the Quartet to have notable virtuoso abilities and a beautiful tone blend born of the sensitive adjustment of instrumentalist to instrumentalist. Added to the string mix is a bit of doubling, on harmonium, contrabass, piano, glockenspiel to add color as appropriate. That and the extended existence of the Quartet as a unit gives us a tightly hewed consonance that is singularly beautiful.

So "The Last Leaf" refers to the very oldest secular song-melody that still exists in the Nordic folk stratum of possibilities. "Dromte mig en drom (I had a Dream)" turned up on the very last leaf of the Codex Runicus parchment dating back to circa 1300. That and a 1732 Danish Christmas hymn "Now Found is the Fairest of Roses" are foundational musical parts of this collection-re-creation.

And as you listen to the many disparate folk numbers a unified aesthetic unity comes out of it all. It is an album that reveals itself increasingly on further listens, like Russian eggs nested in eggs. In this way the Danish String Quartet creates a program that respectfully explores folk terrain as it transforms it into quartet music, in a re-creative act that takes it all further beyond itself without losing the fresh charm of its reiterative venerability, something new emerging from a misty, not really hoary past.

In the best of some aspects of the ECM stance, it brings folk forms to new life as something contemporary and ambiently luscious, verdant, like an unspoiled rural landscape that survives and changes over a long period of time while retaining its original striking quality. Enthusiastic kudos to the Danish String Quartet and Manfred Eicher for bringing to us this beautiful music.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Eternal Monteverdi, Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1650, La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata, Roland Wilson

If you know the music of  Claudio Monteverdi, you know. If you do not, now is the time with the new recording of  "Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1650," otherwise appropriately dubbed Eternal Monteverdi (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88985375132), as performed by La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata, all under the direction of Roland Wilson.

This Vespers contrasts with the more famous 1610 work by Monteverdi, which I have covered on these pages (type Monteverdi in the search box above for that). The work in consideration today has its own merits. Five of the 14 movements were written by others, namely Rigatti, Neri and Guadi.

Nonetheless the music has genuine charm. And it is not inferior so much as it is not quite as illustrious as the 1610 Vespers. The Sixteen's recording of that is slightly more essential than this rendition of the 1650. Yet Roland Wilson's performances of the 1610 with La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata has all the period authenticity one might ask for.

Any Monteverdi enthusiast will find this recording very much to their liking I think. Anyone coming to this period and/or composer for the first time will get something fully representative and foundational for future explorations. Go ahead!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ernest Toch, Solo Piano Pieces, Anna Magdalena Kokits

If you were only to say one thing about Austrian composer Ernest Toch (1887-1964), it might be "undersung." He is not quite completely "unsung," as there have been some very few recordings available in the States, including a long out-of-print LP of a song cycle on MGM in the fifties, but he has been tragically underappreciated nonetheless.

A very happy exception is the recent release of Anna Magdalena Kokits' recording of some of his Solo Piano Pieces (Capriccio 5293). These are a choice selection of works from the interwar years (1923-1931), when he changed his essentially romantic approach to a very contemporary one, mostly post-tonal or marginally tonal, filled with an energetic brilliance and sounding not quite like any other. His father was Jewish and the Fascism of the war years undoubtedly played a part in what has ended up as relative obscurity for him. I do not know the full details. Wikipedia tells of his exile to the United States, his involvement in Hollywood film scoring, teaching, a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony and a return to the romantic style. None of this should detain us for now. The music on the current album speaks eloquently without need for further biographical details.

From the opening bars of the first work, "Burlesques" (1923), we know we are in the presence of a special sensibility. Chromatic and bitter-sweet, it is a distinctive and very pianistic world we enter, neither quite Hindemithian nor beholden to the Second Viennese School. The atonality in this period of Toch is a relative one, since one might ultimately tie down what one hears to a key center. And some of the music is unabashedly tonal. There is a great deal more to it though than some close or distant holding to a key or a tonal gravitation.

And that comes out in the phrasing and flow of the works, brought out so well in Ms. Kokits' performances. They are extraordinarily artful, inspired and original.

The seven compositional forays represented on the album range from the relatively simple "Ten Etudes for Beginners" (1931) to the ambitious "Piano Sonata" (1928). The numerous collations of miniatures in the set show us an incisive side, an inventive wealth. Some might be viewed illuminatingly as a sort of Austrian Satie in playful creative mood, others decidedly have some more Austrian elements, in a kind of modern position on the piano tradition going back to the classical masters yet only as if ghosted and transformed. The longer form works expand the conversational musical syntax appropriately.

With the first listen and subsequent ones, the impression of an original musical mind at work remains constant. This particular grouping of Ernest Toch stands out as defining a 20th century figure much more than an "also ran." The album beguiles and intrigues without fail. Please consider this one seriously. Any student of the flowering of last century in its modern efflorescence will hear another fine voice in the din of competing possibilities. Do listen. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Alla Elana Cohen, Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells, White Lilies of Bells

Composer Alla Elana Cohen and her chamber music are in the spotlight on today's featured album. Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells, White Lilies of Bells (Ravello 7953). Ms. Cohen was born in Russia and came to reside in the United States in 1989, where she has stayed ever since. She teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Seven works grace the program, each a world unto itself. There is an expansive modernism at play along with a certain mystical poetic quality at times. I also detect a Jewish-Russian Orthodox melodic element on occasion, sometimes not pronounced and quite subtle, other times more overt in keeping with the associative extra-musical theme.

You can hear the more modernistic side on "'Inscriptions On A Bamboo Screen,' Series 4 for Soprano and Viola." There is an expressionist edge to be heard on this one and sometimes in the others.

The contrast between the above and the more intimate, searching quality of "'Hoffmanniana' Series 3 for Solo Cello in 4 Movements" is instructive.

With the more fuller instrumentation of something like "'Inner Temple' Volume 1 Series 11 'Shabbat Nigunim' in 4 Movements'" we find tone-color beauty and a kind of inner spiritual yearning. Perhaps not surprisingly Ms. Cohen brings in a Jewish minor melodic element that has a kind of brilliant presence in the modernistic matrix. I love it.

In all this makes for a strongly individual contemporary program. Ms. Cohen is not afraid to let her expressive needs take her far beyond a formalism or the sort of methodological rigor that we became used to in classic serialism. Those "scientistic" days may mostly be forever gone. Ms. Cohen occupies a healthy present. She uses modern means to embody ideas and feelings. And she does it in her own way.

The music is richly meaningful and memorable. Anyone with a taste for new music will find it worth an extended visit and I hope a good number of return trips. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sor, Songs for Voice and Guitar, Nerea Berraondo, Eva Beneke

There is music waiting in the wings for you always, ready when you are. It is in printed form or manuscript (or if advanced jazz or other improvisational forms, existing  powerfully in potentia). Somebody right now may be performing it somewhere. Then there are recordings, setting down a frozen musical moment in time after careful rehearsal. The performances are captured for you, waiting to be heard, released and only needing to be placed on your player.

This morning I once again put on a good one, while I gathered my thoughts about what I heard. What is it? It is Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and his Songs for Voice and Guitar (Naxos 8.573686) as very nicely brought to our ears by mezzo-soprano Nerea Berraondo and classical guitarist Eva Beneke.

Sor in his day was a major virtuoso among guitarists. His songs have an earthy beauty that make them essential, yet they are not often performed now. So lucky for us the recording playing for me again this morning can be enjoyed whenever we like.

Music like this, or even all music like anything, needs performance magic to bring it alive. Something as delicately balanced as voice and guitar music demands special performance care. We get it in Nerea Berraondo's very musical voice, with a bit of heft when needed but never Wagnerian in its intensity, tender and rousing in turn, seemingly recorded without overly close miking so that she does not overpower Eva Beneke's wonderfully nuanced guitar work.

As to the music itself, there is much in the way of very melodically vibrant and ornate songwork here. "Italian Arias" include a few from Mozart's Don Giovanni. They have genuine but imaginatively altered authenticity as beautifully worked re-scorings. The "Spanish Songs," quite a good number of them, are strong and most characteristic--and irresistible. The "French Songs" add another dimensional strength and a couple of "Spanish Patriotic Songs" end the program with a captivating verve.

This is one of those delightful surprises where I had no set idea what to expect and then found with exposure that I had grabbed onto some of the finest music and performances that I didn't know I wanted until I heard it all! Like meeting someone who ends up being a good friend in a seemingly unlikely place, I treasure it all the more for the vistas it has opened up without my being quite prepared for it.

Anyone who loves Spanish classical and/or the guitar heritage will welcome this disc. It feels just right as a listening choice any time or season. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mark Nowakowski, Blood, Forgotten, String Quartets, Emily Ondracek-Peterson, Voxare String Quartet

To use a compound descent-location identity marker for a composer is usually to say that the music has more about it than perhaps a single wide neighborhood belongingness would indicate. So in the case of Mark Nowakowski (b. 1978) he is designated Polish-American on the CD at hand today. It happens to be apt because the chamber music program on Blood, Forgotten (Naxos 8.559821) has a thematic element directed toward the Polish homeland and its three centuries of upheaval and instability. The suffering of the people in the hands of political adversaries centers the musical dramatics.

A strong dirge-like grief is present in various ways throughout. Modern traces of Penderecki and Gorecki are forebears in the programmatic and often emotional intensity of these. The music is for small string groupings. The title work (2005) is for electronics and Emily Ondracek-Peterson on violin. The Voxare String Quartet are the principals on the other works: "String Quartet No. 1 'Songs of Forgiveness'" (2010), "String Quartet No. 2 'Grandfather Songs'" (2011) and "A Usnijze mi, usnij (Lullaby: Sleep for me, sleep)" (2012).

The "Blood, Forgotten" work is a heartbreaking, haunting combination of sorrowfully expressive violin and eerie electronics. The violin has doubled and tripled lines in the electronic track and there are other gestural electronic punctuations.

Nowakowski's First Quartet has some of the more energetic music of the four. There is much to hear in the agitated section, and then the dirgely slow blocks of stark, open chords make for a distinct lamenting mood that we hear often enough in most of this music.The blocks can resolve into the related slow speech of a four-way counterpoint, too. And it all works together.

Think of Barber's famous "Adagio" and Gorecki's most popular symphony (No. 3), then add some of the dramatic depictive expressivity of earlier Penderecki, mix it all up and then include Nowakowski's very original way and that may help give you an idea of how the music sounds. Deep down all of this relates obliquely to Beethoven's "Funeral March" from Eroica. And also the regret of Beethoven late quartets at times. And so there are strands of belonging to a continuum of sad expressions. Yet this is Nowakowski. Make no mistake.

It all fits together as pieces of a larger style-puzzle that is moving and irrepressible. This music demands you enter into it on its own terms. If you do there is singularity and undeniable modern musicality. It is the opposite of Webern. There is no short hot potato pointillism, but instead a long, sprawling,  endless block of anguish transcended by the beauty of how the music lays out.

The continually blowing wind of new music to hear requires that we point our aeolian wind harp in the direction of the oncoming blasts. We then must listen and see how it resonates with our receptive "strings." Any new music requires this, and ideally we must let it blow into our harp-like heads a number of times before we grasp what it IS. That is the case with these rather deep Nowakowski musing laments. It is good. The performances are excellent. The music special. Listen.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Daniel Jones, Symphonies 2 & 11, BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Bryden Thomson

Welsh Composer Daniel Jones (1912-1993) is best remembered for his 13 symphonies, which he defined as "dramatic structures with emotive intention."  He is represented on today's disc by an early and a late example of his work in the medium, Symphonies Nos. 2 & 11 (Lyrita SRCD 364). It is a respectable performance by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Bryden Thomson. Judging from the catalog entries in the back of the CD booklet Thomson aims to cover the complete cycle. Since this one is marked ADD I suspect they all were recorded a while ago?

The sound quality is not quite audiophile level. What matters is that we get a faithful representation of what these symphonies are about.

Jones began composing early in life and in youth established a friendship with Dylan Thomas. The two collaborated on a number of poems. Jones ended up getting his BA and MA in English. His MA thesis was on Elizabethan poetry, and his ancillary exposure to the music of that period influenced his melodic conception, so says the liner notes. He studied composition and conducting (with Harry Farjeon and Sir Henry Wood) at the Royal Academy of Music. His recognition as a composer first came in 1950 with his "Symphonic Prologue." Thereafter he gained attention and amassed a sizable number of works in all genres as well as conducting.

Symphony No. 2 was completed in 1950 and is a longish, ambitious work clocking in at nearly 44 minutes. It has a modern edge to it but hearkens back in some ways to Neo-Romantic expression, more extroverted than some and edgier than Elgar. And there surely are brilliant moments and an attractively wayward individuality. 

Symphony No. 11 is shorter, more compact and shows an increasing originality and orchestrational flair.

He was no rabid modernist but neither would either symphony be mistaken for an earlier period work. He was of his time. And sure of his direction from the 1950 work as well as the later symphony from 1983.

Any musical Anglophile will be well served by this volume. It shows us a Daniel Jones who travelled a path of his own, emotive and drenched in Romantic symphonic tradition, yet speaking to his era. Well worth hearing.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford, Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 2, Christopher Howell

On July 3, 2016 I favorably reviewed Volume One of the Complete Works for Piano of Charles Villiers Stanford. Today I cover Volume 2 (Sheva Collection 125), once again performed nicely by pianist Christopher Howell and filling up two CDs.

Stanford (1852-1924) is not as well remembered today as compared with his stature in England during his lifetime. He is perhaps best celebrated nowadays for his choral works. The music for piano shows a rather different aspect of his music. Like Chabrier in France, Stanford produced a body of piano music not really neo-Romantic, not exactly neo-Classical, not much dependent upon great flashy technical skill, but rather a kind of pure musicality that is by no means harmonically advanced but straightforward, no mere trifles by any standard. It is what you might call a combination of Salon and Pedagogic music, but none of it has a pretentious or highly sentimental outlook.

What you do hear is very English, some miniature stately pomp, lightheartedly tuneful ditties, and pastoral, rustic folksy-tinged works which no doubt Vaughan-Williams and Holst gained from as a prefiguration of what they more fully developed.

Like with the first volume there is an unexpectedly disarming quality to the whole. It does not pretend to a ponderous importance and by so doing brings nonetheless delightful piano music that neither seems quite dated nor does it fully transcend its era.

And in that way we intersect with some worthwhile music. Volume Two forms a perfectly enjoyable counterpart to the inaugural volume. I will return with my take on the final volume three in a little while. Meanwhile these are a bit of a surprise treat!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

George Tsontakis, Anasa, True Colors, Unforgettable, Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller

In the world of living US composers, George Tsontakis (b. 1951) is an integral part, apparently, though for whatever reason I have not up until now heard any of his music. That is remedied by the recent release of three concertos performed ably by the Albany Symphony and soloists under David Alan Miller (Naxos 8.559821).

The works featured are Anasa (2011) for clarinet and orchestra, True Colors (2012) for trumpet and orchestra, and Unforgettable (2009 rev. 2013) for two violins and orchestra.

"Anasa" with David Krakauer as the clarinet soloist begins the program on a lively note with a thoroughly klezmerized score that Krakauer dominates over with stylistic acumen and authenticity. There is much charm and dance-like immediacy. The subtle interweaving of orchestral density and overarching klezmer clarinet expressivity wins me over easily.

"True Colors" opens on a suspended mysterioso mood with much variation in hues from the orchestra and a more directly modern sound. Trumpetist Eric Berlin enters with surety, dexterity and a full tone. The music gathers momentum and trumpet gains a semi-jazzish stance while the orchestra explores variational or ostinato imitative motive cells and harmonically full thematics with bell-like reflective moodiness.

"Unforgettable" continues and deepens the mood with a searching and probing kind of meditative modern mode that makes excellent and unexpected use of the two violin soloists (Luosha Fang and Eunice Kim), who alternate between tightly woven interactions of virtuosity and a bottom-up continuation of the melodic thrust of the orchestra. The sort of "remember me" reflectiveness has a vague resemblance in mood to Berg's "Violin Concerto" yet never trespasses directly on that concerto's set domain. It is the most moving of the three works, drawing a fitting conclusion to the program.

Tsontakis brings to us a well structured middle-ground modern series of tone poems that bear up  under the familiarity of repeated return aural visits. Performances are uniformly good. The three concerted works show depth, subtlety and a visceral immediacy. Tsontakis has his own voice yet fits in well with the US school of melodically lyrical-depictive composers of the past 100 years. A fine listen!