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Friday, August 17, 2018

Michael Byron, The Ultra Violet of Many Parallel Paths

In music as in life things happen, if you are living in the stream of the present. There will always be new music, and there will be always be older new music, still older new music and then music that is not longer considered new. This is a commonplace. It is obvious. Yet when you live in the stream of it all it is far from commonplace and it is in a way always tempered by the great unknown. What is coming? We cannot know for sure.

Yet we can of course know what has arrived. One of those is composer Michael Byron. If you type his name into the search box in the upper left of this page you will find a number of reviews I have written here. I like what he has been doing. And now I have his recent CD The Ultra Violet of Many Parallel Paths (self released). It is in the form of two longer works for two pianos, performed most ably by Joseph Kubera and Marilyn Nonken. The album was recorded in concert at Roulette Intermedium in New York City late last year.

There is something of the Radical Tonality mode inherent in the music. Then again there arises at times a density that is nearly extra-tonal, but never quite.

This is a kind of process music. It starts at one point and gradually goes to another point and in the doing it changes. Both works have a cascading rhythmic anarchy that is pleasingly stuttered, disjointed, expressive Pollockian scatter and splatter. As each work proceeds it increases in rhythmic density, and there is a kind of post-Cecil Taylor freedom expression there that Free Improv fans will readily find congenial. And New Music ears will have no trouble understanding it as well.

The opening work sets out a quasi-pentatonic-diatonic minor  mode in a recognizable scalular pattern that may remind us of Gamelan and other Asian musical sensibilities. Byron then adds additional scalular notes gradually as it becomes more dense and tonally more complex due to simultaneous sounds between the two pianos of scale tones overlapping, creating a kind of increased harmonic consideration.

The second takes to us a kind of whole-tone augmented scalular foundation that splatter-bursts itself from the beginning, that increases in density and continuousness with time and also adds chromatic tones or a chromatic feeling in the midst of the overlap soundings..

The music remains distinct and fascinating no matter how many times you listen. It is very noteworthy, if you'll pardon my pun. I strongly recommend you hear it!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Richard Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Andres Orozco-Estrada

I've listened to and appreciated the music of Richard Strauss since my high school days.  There was a huge spike in his popularity when 2001, A Space Odyssey was released with the "Zarathustra" opening as a key part of the soundtrack, so it was inevitable that a young person opening up to "serious" music for the first time would find Strauss in the course of explorations. So I did. The "Zarathustra," "A Hero's Life," "Eulenspeigel" and in time the operas got my attention and appreciation. "Symphonia Domestica" was a work that I tried on a number of occasions to get into, but for some reason liked well enough but somehow never quite clicked with. The same too with Eine Alpensinfonie (1915). It wasn't that I actively disliked either of these later works. It was only that I failed somehow to grasp them as wholes. Yet I re-listened periodically to the LPs I have had since the early days.

I had the opportunity recently to hear and review a new recording of An Alpine Symphony (Pentatone PTC 5186 628) and I thought, "why not?" So for the last several weeks I have listened to the Frankfurt Symphony under Andres Orozco-Estrada have their way with the sprawling Late Romantic behemoth. To my happy surprise, this time with this version the music suddenly came into focus for me. Partly perhaps I have had some time away from Strauss as a steady diet and so too I am no longer seeking as I hear to compare it with Strauss's earlier tone poems.

And credit must surely be given to the quality of the performances and the audio liveliness here. Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony give the music not just the heroic quality it needs to breathe freely. They give equal weight to the tender retrospection and a tempered passion. Because of all of this I hear the music now as if for the first time. It no longer seems to me a kind of return to "A Hero's Life." Surely it still seems to me in direct relation to that work, but as quite a bit more than a reflexive re-sounding. It is music that stands very well on its own, with no comparison's needed.

Perhaps like Strauss's celebrated "Last Songs" it is an aural equivalent to "older and wiser?" After all, 17 years separate the Alpine from the Hero work. Strauss by then was not quite the cutting edge "Modernist" he was thought to be among New Music devotees at the turn of the century. There were signs that Strauss and the Later Romantic programmatic ways were being supplanted by new tendencies, or we might infer that when looking at what was being created and creating attention or scandal among his contemporaries in those days. Yet this was a work he no doubt felt compelled to create, and surely not as some afterthought.

Time marches on. We no longer need to topple Strauss from the throne of leading-light advances, nor for that matter do we need to restore him to the original sunlight in which he once basked. So too then the Alpensinfonie need no longer be a part of a later horse race. In the end everybody won and nobody won as well. There is a place for the symphony in the gathering of other influential compositions of that era. If we give far more weight to later Mahler than we once did, if we view early Schoenberg and Stravinsky, if we praise Ives and others that nobody knew then, if we look at many composers in more detail and consideration that might have been the case, it does not mean we then dismiss later Strauss.  The strife is o'er, the battle done. Nobody really won. And that is all the better for us because it means that much more music we can listen to without regret. So I recommend this recording, very much so.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Stephen Dodgson, String Trios, Karolos

Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013)? I reviewed his 24 Inventions for Harpsichord for this blog on August 17th of 2017, just about a year ago. I liked his tip-of-the-hat to historic forms that nevertheless had a contemporary Modern outlook both original and well wrought. Today we have a new volume of his works, String Trios (Naxos 8.573856). It broadens my view of the composer and gives me an uncompromising series of chamber works for small string ensembles. I believe I am the better for it. Read on to find out if you might be as well.

And what of the composer and his life? The liners help out. He was born in London, served in the Royal Navy during WWII. He then enrolled in the Royal College of Music, subsequently studied composition with Patrick Hadley in Cambridge. Two compositional prizes and a scholarship allowed him to spend several years in Rome, and he returned to London in 1950, where he taught and composed to survive and make himself over in his own musical image. The first String Trio included here marks a high point of his first years.

The music we hear on this program consistently merits close attention. He presents a basically tonal centered yet Modern-edged pallet in the works presented. The String Trios 1 (1951) and 2 (1964) are the main focal points of the program, acting as a kind of sandwich for the three solo string works that contrast nicely enough with the trios.

The solo works have a seriousness of intent and an exploratory mode that marks them as worthy. They cover each one of the three instruments assembled together for the trios. So there is the "Sonatina in B minor for Solo Violin" (1963), the seasonally apt "Caprice after Puck" for solo viola (1978) and the "Partita for Solo Cello" (1985).

Three members of the performing group Karolos provide the fine performances we hear. There is Harriet MacKenzie on violin, Sarah-Jane Bradley on viola and Graham Walker on cello. As players of the solo works they are accomplished and idiomatically appropriate, and as a string trio they excel with a coordinated and briskly brio or a tenderly reflective undulating whole as needed.

Those who gravitate to the serious chamber intimacies of the Modern-Tonal yet expect there to be a consistently intricate edge and would like another twist to a kind of Neo-Classical outlook, seek no further. The world might not move under your feet as you hear this one, but then you will no doubt find the music very well performed and doubtless worthwhile. Four of the five works are in their premier recordings, so this is that place to hear them. And to me they are worth hearing. So.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Jonah Sirota, Strong Sad, Contemporary Chamber Music


I am tired of starting off posts with, "oh, and now for something different!" Monty Python did that better than I can, yet there is truth in the saw. They rung down a stage and rung up another. And on today's Modern music scene, differences really do make a difference. And my inclination naturally is to say that about today's music, because it truly is a kind of breath of fresh air.

I allude to the album Strong Sad by Jonah Sirota (National Sawdust Tracks 2018). A friend sent me a copy and after a few spins I began to seriously get in with the sound. It is a kind of Postmodern tonal chamber music in nearly a Radical Tonality mode. Moody, lyrical, touch driven and flying level to the earth more than flying. And all that seems good the way it is done here.

Jonah Sirota is on viola throughout. He also wrote or co-wrote two of the eight compositions on here. Kurt Knecht is on organ and co-wrote one of the works, Molly Morkoski is on piano, and Nadia Sirota appears as additional violist on the interplay much of the time. Additional composition credits go to Valgeir Sigurasson, Rodney Lister, A. J. McCaffrey, Paola Prestini and Nico Muhly.

Now the musicianship is quite high in level. The sound of the various works-groupings I might say seems "natural." By that I mean it is rather unassuming, I will not say casual because it is most deliberate, but then maybe a good word for it is relaxed. There is nothing in the way of stiffness to be detected in either the works or their performance.

And in the compositions there is a kind of a journey in pomo possibilities, various shades, none of which are unoriginal, nothing patently expected as typical of things too typical. And that is where the intriguing qualitieare, the wayward looks at what have differing amounts of ambiance, cyclicities, lyrical sadness or contemplativeness, melodic spin, viola rich poeticism.

After I had listened a few times I started feeling the pull of this music in earnest. It does not call undue attention to itself. It does not flaunt itself or make presumptuous demands on our attention, though some music does all this and if it is wonderful I hardly mind. Yet this entire program does not try to wow us or create fireworks or even to shock us with some boldness. That's OK. If you buffet in the winds of Modernism enough you might find you need something of a break from the pulling about such listener participation sometimes insists upon. That is when you might put this CD on and bask in the tonal washes, the aural watercolors, pastels and memento mori's in tone.

This one certainly is a sleeper.. And for that reason maybe seems like a sort of rare thing. I cannot say there is an album out there quite like this. I do not hesitate to recommend it to you.

Paul Hindemith, Das Marienleben, Juliane Banse, Martin Helmchen

Paul Hindemith's popularity has never exactly waned since his demise years ago, but there was a time when his music was looked upon by some (unfairly I think) as not advanced enough in the Avant Modern sphere. This is somewhat akin to dismissing Bach because he did not stray into Rococo terrain.  At this point what followed Hindemith I would say is in the end no more current than he is, so the whole idea of progress too might as well be discounted. It is irrelevant to our musical outlook in terms of our view of the recent past. So we are free to embrace Hindemith, Reger or even Boris Blacher, or for that matter Zimmermann, or even Stockhausen without resorting to an avant thermometer.

Teleology is a bit passe these days and good for that. The now contested assertion by Victorian anthropologists that the evolution of human culinary art was at last reached with the advent of boiling comes to mind, humorously so. Yet for all that we still make hard-boiled eggs with no regrets, as we also might scramble them too without feeling the least bit old-fashioned, even if nuking everything seemed de rigueur a couple of decades ago.

So it is fitting that there be a new version of Hindemith's Das Marienleben (Alpha 398), the classic Expressionist song cycle based on the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. The version performed is the revised one completed by the composer in 1948.

And understandably this music-as-recording stands and falls on the merits of the performance. Few would contest the importance of the work itself, at least among Hindemith admirers.  Julian Banse is an extraordinarily powerful soprano presence that brings a brilliant bite to the proceedings. So also pianist Martin Helmchen gives the music strongly expressive and committed musical foundations.

It is very much as excellent a performance of Das Marienleben as I have heard. The music is as masterful as any Hindemith wrote, but it takes a sure voice and piano togetherness and a consistently potent expressive power to make such on the surface difficult music become clear and movingly comprehensible. They very much triumph in the doing so. This version should stand as the present-day benchmark for the work for a long time to come.

And so I do strongly recommend this offering. Banse and Helmchen bring incomparable depth to the music.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Paul and Pauline Viardot, Six Pieces, etc., Reto Kuppel, Wolfgang Manz

I am never one to shy away from the unknown, and of 20th century France I would never avoid learning something new, so I said "Why not?" when I had the chance to hear and review the present recording of the music of Paul Viardot (1857-1941) and his mother Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). The program at hand is a collection of short pieces for violin and piano (Naxos 8.573749). The performances are flawless and expressive, idiomatic in a kind of sophisticated and melodically rich salon style then current in French cosmopolitan circles from a bit before the turn of the century through to the 1920s. So that is to say that there are very French musical elements present in this music, a folksy charm, a tuneful lighthearted depth. For this there is something about this music that is not alien to Chabrier, Satie or Debussy, each in his own way and that means sometimes of course a way divergent somewhat but the Viardots share this with the others while possibly embodying more fully the salon tradition per se.

And who are these Viardots? The back cover of the CD informs us that both were a part of the Garcia family, most notably tenor operatic star Manuel Garcia, who was Paula's father. They were as a result of the father's fame very much a part of the Parisian society. Paul was a violin prodigy, which only increased their fame. Of course now I asked "who?" when I saw the names, but life  in time handles fame and obscurity with equal indifference and the point is now the music.

All of the music heard on the program is in World Premier recordings. We get Pauline's "Six Morceaux" for twenty minutes of the eighty-some-odd total. It is very pleasing music, more than mere trifles. The Paul Viardot works take up the bulk of the CD and they are miniaturist salon classics with a good deal of violin expressiveness.

None of this music will set the world on fire, sure. Yet it all fills out a place in our understanding of French modernity by furnishing a good, a very good example of the "mainstream" salon-violin music in the modern era. The more one listens the better one likes it all. Like perhaps Fritz Kreisler's violin miniatures it is worthy and characteristic without being some giant leap forward.

Now if you are a devotee of 20th century French music you will want this. If you want something pleasing without being terribly profound you will want this! And it is nice to hear. I am glad of it. Recommended for all the reasons above. It brings back an age we no longer know much of and for that reason it helps us picture the whole scene!

Eugene Zador, The Plains of Hungary, Budapest Symphony, Mariusz Smolij

In my experience in the States there seemed to be few chances  to know the music of Eugene Zador (1894-1977) as I was growing up. I cannot recall thumbing past a Zador section or even much in the way of releases in the old record store classical bins, and that was to me a sure indication of someone's status on the music scene then, for better or worse. His later works addressed Hungarian themes and had a folk-like homespun quality at times without adopting directly any nationalist melodic material. Yet there is real inventive facility, an excellent sonaric command of the orchestra, poise and personality in the musical unfolding.

Or it least that is what I have been hearing in the latest Naxos volume of his music, the first I have had the pleasure to hear. I mean The Plains of Hungary (Naxos 8.573800). It is a program of some seven orchestral works, six in their recorded world premier. Doing the honors is the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV as directed by Mariusz Smolij. I can find no fault in the performances. In fact they are enthusiastic and balanced.

The back cover of the CD notes that Zador "fused Classicism with Romanticism." Yes I hear that but there seems also a kind of Hungarian Impressionism at play here as well. A tendency to tone paint, to have a dappled descriptive dimension, this is an aspect of the music that provides more than a sort of Classical-Romantic fuse.

So there is a good mix of the earlier and the later, the Nationalist and the generally descriptive. If you did not know some of Zador's titles you might not always make the Hungarian connection yet you certainly can find some local expression once you look for it. A perfect example is the 1969 "Rhapsody for Cimbalom and Orchestra." It is neither dealing with gypsy cliches nor is it in an abstract zone. And for that it is Zador in a characteristic mode.  It is a strength and I suppose there is good reason why this piece of all of them has been previously recorded commercially. But that is not to imply something negative about the rest of the music on this CD.

We get six more works, each in their recorded firsts, the 1965 "Dance Overture," the 1970 "Fantasia Hungarica" for orchestra and a subtle solo contrabass, the title work "Elegie, 'The Plains of Hungary,'" from  1960, then  finally the rather chipper 22 minute "Variations on a Merry Theme" (1964), and the finale, the 1961 "Rhapsody for Orchestra."  All of the works are in emphatic earnest, all have serious ambitions though they cover moods that range from regretful to jovial. Kodaly is not a huge contrast to Zador yet they are distinct and not easily confusable one with the other if you listen intently. This is not especially a set of works with some depth psychology of a Late Romanticist like Bruckner, say, nor are we hearing a Beethoven-like or Brahms-ish heroism, Mendelssohnian Puck, or not really except perhaps obliquely on "Variations on a Merry Theme," no brashly modern Bartok but more Bartok than not-tok. No Stravinsky Neo-Classical at least as he approached it, no Darmstadtian avantness.

And in the discovery of what Zador is not, by elimination you discover what he is. That is himself. And in order to fully arrive to a Zador landscape you must listen more than once. It is not music that especially jumps out on first hearing and mows you down. It may never exactly mow you at all. Instead it has a kind of expressive alone-ness that invites you to join with it for a time. You do so eventually or I did. And if I do not get an elation, a Maher-esque, heaven-bent elation, nor do I want to weep and laugh uproariously as I might with Berlioz, that is OK. Actually it is a good thing, very good. You do not get deja vu much, if at all. Yet the originality does not hit you over the head either. It is music very well crafted, personally idiomatic, with the kind of classical emotional control of a Haydn, but nothing like Haydn? Surely.

If you want to know the Hungarian Modern period better, Zador certainly should not be missed. This is a good place to start.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Buxtehude, Abendmusiken, Ensemble Masques, Olivier Fortin, Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier

On the occasion of living a life there is always music that fits in and when it does it adds much to the day. There may not be many times I would be called upon to account for these high points, except for on here. So I can say that Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is a name that I readily associate with such happy times. He started at first like so many in the pantheon as another name that came with strong recommendations, most notably from J.S. Bach himself, who revered his mentor and was not reluctant to praise his music. That in time became increasingly compelling as my astonishment over Bach increased, so I in time began to become acquainted with Buxtehude and the musical brilliance there. By now I always welcome another chance to get acquainted with his output. And so there is a new one, Abendmusiken (Alpha Classics 287). It features Ensemble Masques directed by Olivier Fortin, and Vox Luminus directed by Lionel Meunier in very lovely period performances of eight appealing, masterful works.

The album begins with"Gott ilf Mir..." which reminds us or alerts us to the power of Buxtehude in a minor key! There is gravitas, drama, a huge brooding wonder that few could match out there in those days! And the program proceeds from strength-to-strength.

The works range from Trio Sonatas to full-blown Cantatas, all in the High Baroque manner of the Maestro, contrapuntal and otherwise, carefully crafted and minutely set out with the sort of exacting care that he ever embodied. There is a wealth of music performed brilliantly, a cross-spectrum of Biixtehude that serves readily as an excellent introduction to his music, or for that matter expands your library of the master's works if you have already come some ways along in appreciating him. You cannot go wrong with this one for its breadth and period excellence. So I do not hesitate to recommend it to you.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Toshiro Mayuzumi, Samsara, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Yoshikazu Fukumura

The music of Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929-1997) stands in a place of singular originality to my mind. I've been listening to his orchestral music for years and I must say I love it. There is a new one, very happily at least for me, and it features the title work Samsara  (Naxos 8.573916). The Hong Kong Philharmonic under Yoshikazu Fukumura approach the music with the dash, engagement and vibrance it so much requires, and the works themselves are pretty much typical and idiomatic, with the exception somewhat of the second work, but see below.

So what do we get? The program includes three works, the "Phonologie Symphonique" of 1957, the "Bacchanale" of 1953 and the by-now rather iconic "Samsara" of 1962.

For an old Mayuzumi saw like me the early 1953 "Bacchanale" is very illuminating because it shows a Mayuzumi not entirely set into form but fascinating for that.

If you think of the Varese of "Ameriques" then you can then think of how Mayuzumi and he share something, though each in different ways. Then think of some of Luc Ferrari's works and you have the makings of a school which must no doubt include the Stravinsky of "Rite" and some other works of his, "Agon" for example. It is as much as sort of "Primitivism" as Picasso and his fascination with African masks. And I do not mean that negatively.

There are of course the Minimalists out there and I love some of it to tears! The prototypical Reich-Riley uses repetition kind of cosmically and-or African-Indian-Indonesian trancically? The repetitive cells are relatively short, smear-like and one if everything is right can enter a hypnotic zone and tap ones foot at the same time. Now when done well this sort of thing is extraordinary. When done less well it is less extraordinary and can even become a little bit or. a lot banal! And I do not mean either Reich or Riley.

Mayuzumi on the other had comes from a different place that Stravinsky and Varese more or less set the stage for, and Luc Ferrari also practiced, So that is the art of long-form repetition-variation. One could argue and rightly so that even Sonata Form as a whole assumes repetition and variation, well sure. Mayuzumi's long-form repetition builds more or less complicated cellular motives which he then enacts at emotionally taught moments, repeating and varying them. It is the choice-content of the motives and the way they interact with non-repetitive elements. That is the crux of the matter!

So this volume has a great selection of works well performed. If you do not know Mayuzumi here is how to know him a little. And of course if you do, we have another one that bears up under scrutiny and adds nicely to what you already might know and own. Mayuzumi is an essential Modernist and a most original one to boot. Get this.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Michael Hersch, End Stages Violin Concerto, Patricia Kopatchinskaya

To my mind Michael Hersch has become one of the leading luminaries in High Modernism today. He convinces us that there is plenty of stylistic room at the top for the extension of the tradition into living times--and that he is charting a major foray into the zone with every new work. I am not alone in thinking that. If we needed further indication it has arrived decisively and happily in the major new disk that is upon us, a premier recording of end stages violin concerto (New Focus Recordings FCR 208).  The 2015 "Violin Concerto" spotlights Patricia Kopatchinskaja as the solo violinist with the International Contemporary Ensemble in the capable hands of Tito Munoz. "End Stages" (2018) gets the attention of the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble. Both are essential; the final result shows an enlightened pairing.

What the two works do is widen our appreciation of the orchestral/concerted Hersch. Both works relate to one another with a seriality that is pleasing. Do both works have an expressive extremity that reaches out to a potentially menacing hugeness to call attention to the human presence in the universe?  I hear that, even if perhaps the feeling is more Rorschachian than objective, it we really can relate feeling reactions absolutely to musical tones. And is there a total objectivity available to us in these matters? Not as far as I know. Not on this level.

The Concerto is meant to commemorate the life and passing of a friend. It was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and violinist Kopachinskaja. Some somber lines from two Thomas Hardy poems serve as epigrams. A sculpture by Christopher Cairns, Stanchion, adds a kind of correlate to the music from the second movement onwards. Heroically bleak is perhaps the two words that most occur to me as I hear the work repeatedly. There is at the thickest points of the work a special strings against unstrings dichotomy to the music, with the solo part and the string section forming natural alliances and having the more to say while winds join in most appropriately at any rate but not much on their own so much as in tandem. Patricia takes the part with a muscular poeticism that drives forward the shape of the music and sets the pace that the orchestral groupings emulate and further admirably.

"End Stages" (2016) truly seems to continue the musical discourse set in motion by the concerto. It is a sparser, quieter meta-monstration on death and Hersch seems to lighten  the burden of grief just a little to allow the sunlight to shine through the louvers of the wooden screen just enough for us to reclaim the boundaries and borders that mark us off from the "not we."  If that seems whimsical to you, listen carefully to the music and you may feel it too, but it does not matter as much as the feelings that this music truly "means." The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra take over the musical chairs for this seven part briefer work.There is nothing lightweight or incidental about this music, but then Hersch happily seems incapable of meaninglessness.

If the music on this program is more bracing than joyful keep in mind that we do not remember, say,  the story of Oedipus because it is chipper and warm-hearted! Music like literature need not be grinning at all times from ear-to-ear to involve us in serious openings onto a supra-human terrain. That Hersch can do this with increasing strikingness is a reason to rejoice anyway. We need as a species to do more than talk of walls and witch hunts! Lest we forget what makes us special, get this new volume and listen with care. Yes, there IS the new in New Music. This is one place to find it and hold on to it.

Like the generally unsung Alan Pettersson (1911-1980) there is a certain amount of biographical pain and anguish in Hersch's music. And so perhaps is there a personally quixotically macabre strain in Alfred Hitchcock. All artists put something of themselves in their work, no? We come to recognize it and so we come to understand something of the meaning of it all as we do.

Very strongly recommended for all Modernists who want to know that the journey continues.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

John Harbison, Symphony No. 4, Carl Ruggles, Sun Treader, Steven Stucky, Second Concerto for Orchestra, National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, David Alan Miller

When a recording project is right on many levels, it simply clicks and if your ears can discern what is happening you are the happy beneficiary. I feel that way with today's album. It features three contrasting "American" orchestral works, American in the sense of USA or for some folks E.E.U.U.

The selection creates a zone where we hear three very compatible yet distinctive approaches to the orchestral arts, none of them less "American" than the others, by simple virtue that all three composers have soaked up the life strains of music in this space, and then gone on to ply their own will upon it all, to make their own something from the matrix.

The National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic under David Alan Miller give us a volume in a projected series of such for Naxos. I should give you the particulars now or risk forgetting what should come first. The album features John Harbison Symphony No. 4, Carl Ruggles Sun Treader and Steven Stucky Second Concerto for Orchestra (Naxos 8.559836).

Now that pairing happens to work well, at least for me. You start with an absolute masterpiece, the Cranky Yankee himself, Carl Ruggles and his beautifully explosive 1926-31 "Sun Treader." I have never heard it played better than here with Miller and the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic in rich, deeply expressive heaven. It is a work that sounds as fresh today as it ever did. And this performance reminds us how we should ever hear his music, for he was a master, truly. Is this music cranky? Only in the best ways!

Steven Stucky (1949-2016) may not be terribly familiar to many of us. He is not someone I know musically very well. Yet this 2004 "Second Concerto for Orchestra" has very much of interest going on. It won the Pulitzer Prize so that says something. There is orchestrational and sound colorful imagination to be heard and appreciated.

In the end the "Symphony No. 4" (2004) by Harbison is the must-hear of the three. For whatever reason I've missed the earlier recording or two of this but Miller guides the outcome with a sure hand and a firm grasp on the kaleidoscopic, jazzy maelstrom of inspiration that makes up the whole of the work. I do not recall ever being disappointed in a Harbison work. He keeps an ever-inventive musical mind focused and brings to us plenty of sheer music-joy. Here is a wonderful example and it is an essential for any who follow the USA branch of Modernity.

T sum up, this is another one of the reasons why Naxos gives us so much musical worth when they hit on a combination and they do it often. For a modest price you can grab this, an essential step into exploring American orchestral Modernism in three equally exploratory and worthwhile audio journeys, played with great care and understanding, sounding just fabulous! Do not hesitate! Grab onto this one, do.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

John Cage, The Works for Piano 10, Thomas Schultz

At the risk of sticking my neck out too far I will tell you that I think John Cage's piano works are among the very most significant body of Modernity of the last half of the 20th century. I do not say that casually. I have listened to most all of it intently over a now long period of my life, beginning in high school and continuing on to today. There are reasons why I feel this way of course and it has to do with Cage having a special affinity with the instrument.

Oh yes, the prepared piano works met fairly early on with a lot more acclaim than was usual for the gaggles of extreme New Music coming out in those days. The reason why people tend to be fascinated by them even today is in part the reason why his piano pieces as a whole are most all enchanting. He we now all realize was highly influenced by Satie and the sort of attention to the sounding of an atmospheric kind of tone series in Satie's works you hear most always in Cage's oeuvre if you are already alerted to look for it. And that is only part of it. Some of it is incredibly hard going for a performer. The maps of the heavens works are in my head when I consider such things.

What matters for today is that thankfully there have been more recordings of Cage's piano music than some of his other works. And today we have a particularly good one. It is but a volume in a complete series, but when you get a volume as one volume, you listen to it as a discrete entity and so here I am with that.

I speak of John Cage's The Works for Piano 10 (Mode 304). It features Thomas Schultz at the piano. I may have other volumes of this complete oeuvre tucked away somewhere but if so I do not remember where. With Cage's piano music I never turn down an opportunity to hear other versions because the differences can be of course startling. But the Mode series has crept up on me. No matter because this Volume Ten makes up for what I may have missed.

Thomas Schultz can tackle the super abstract pieces with a supreme mastery of making the seemingly random become very pianistic and sound as fortuitously  poetic as it no doubt should. And then he can bring out the lyrical side of Cage in ways as convincing as anyone. First and foremost his are very pianistic readings, so that you feel the piano is not just some menu of note and attack choices, but of course a subtle, endlessly subtle vehicle that can bring as many nuances as you might care to bring to a performance.

The choice of works for Volume 10 is also seemingly apt. At the center of it all is the "Solo for Piano," the solo piano part to his masterful "Concert for Piano and Orchestra" of 1958. It turns out that the part played alone, at least by Maestro Schultz is quite fascinating and intriguing. There are so many elements that go into the basic sound-silence framework of the music. The pointillistic jabs of varying intensity can be characteristically Modern-atonal, but they can suddenly be memorably tonal as well. Then there are very almost folksy pianissimo passages that Schultz gives an almost homespun reading of. There is so much going on in this 46 minute work that I suggest you give this a close reading on your own. And Schultz does not read it as a "bunch of notes" like perhaps some early performances seemed to do--but then with the orchestra involved it is a different animal also. So there is this, very central part of the volume.

Sandwiched at either end of the "Solo" are two remarkable early works, the brief 1938 "Two Pieces for Piano" and then the very Modern-Sateian 1946 "Two Pieces for Piano." The 1938 set is very much Cage getting into a sort of Modern extra-outer edge of tonality sequence of tones. Yet it after repeating hearings takes on life in a very Cagean way, as a kind of brilliantly sleeper sequentialism.

The 1946 "Two Pieces" is played with such attention to detail and striking contracting attacks and articulation that you hear and make very clear note of the almost blandly tonal chords and otherwise very tonal moments in the context of a modern "Modern" edged-tonal sequence.  On this recording it all starts coming together as a Zen Rock Garden, with the tonal "objects" standing in bold relief to the "raked sand" if you will. With Schultz's reading it becomes alive as perhaps never before. You hear more Satie in there (or I do anyway) than you might otherwise and it is both beautiful and revelatory.

In the end this program if you take it seriously gives you a hugely vibrant look at some of the staples of Cage's piano output in ways that make you more aware of the brilliance of them, if you listen with an open set of ears. It is rather astounding in its impact if you give it a chance. I recommend this volume most heartily!




Monday, July 30, 2018

Graciela Paraskevaidis, Libres en el Sonida, Ensemble Adventure


The striking originality of composer Graciela Paraskevaidis is apparent from even the first note of her album Libres en el Sonido (Wergo WER 7362-2). Seven compositions of varying chamber density are performed with dedication and characteristic elan by Ensemble Adventure.

Doubtless I am not the only one new to her and her music so a little background no doubt is in order. Graciela Paraskevaidis (1940-2017) was Argentinian born, of Greek ancestry. She lived and worked in Uruguay. She studied composition with Roberto Garcia Morillo at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires, then later on with Gerardo Gandini, Iannis Xenakis and Wolfgang Fortner.

The end result is Paraskevaidis, not exactly something predicted by her compositional mentors, except perhaps a kind of unswerving rare-ification that you can also hear often enough in Xenakis. With Graciela though the means and more or less the ends show no real derivative qualities so much as affinity.

Ritual-gestural-brutal? Wolfgang Rudiger in the liners describes the unprecedented nature of what we hear in the opening bars of the first work on the program, "Libres en el Sonido Presos un el Sonido." "Raging scales in the woodwinds seem like rain squalls lashed upwards by the windstorm, braced on the one side by widely stretched tri-tone-fourth-chords and spurred on by the obsessive minor second repetitions in the piano. . . " This most aptly describes the sort of brutal-fanfare-ritual infernalities of her music we get from time to time on this program. These interludes of manic determination break off and may follow by contrasting sparsenesses that are quiet and filled here and there with more or less empty spaces.

Each of the seven works of the program falls within a ten-minute or less timespan. "No Lado, Otre Lado" is for piano alone; "...il Remoto Silenzio" for solo cello. The rest are scored for three, four, five, and eight chamber instrumentalists.

The music can we insistently manic as suggested above but giddily light as well, sometimes both within the same composition, sometimes not. The quiet passages can almost seem hallucinatory, dream like, unreal. And throughout there is a most singular vision or series of them at work.

There is nothing out there quite like this music. It stands on its own almost obstinately and it marks Graciela Paraskevaidis as a remarkable artists in a set of one. This is music you must meet more than half-way. But if you give it a fair hearing I think you will be surprised and pleased with the invention and singularity of the composer. Recommended for all those who are open to the avant guard aspects of Modernity.





Friday, July 27, 2018

Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Cello Concerto, Transcriptions for Cello and Piano, Houston Symphony, Brinton Averil Smith, Kazuki Yamada

Generally speaking since Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's death in 1968 his worldwide reputation has somewhat ebbed. In the last decades on the other hand there is some indication that there is a slow but steady momentum gathering strength bit-by-bit, some signs that his music is once gain finding favor in concert halls and via recordings. After 80 years between professional performances, the 1935 Cello Concerto awakens us to reconsider his music again in the current World Premiere Recording by cellist Brinton Averil Smith and the Houston Symphony under Kazuki Yamada (Naxos 8.573820). We are surely not done with the composer yet!

Castelnuovo-Tedesco, as the liner notes to this CD remind us, found his Italian homeland increasingly dangerous as Mussolini and the Fascists came into power and banned his music than due to his Jewish heritage. So he came to the United States and lived the second half of his life there. And like all war refugee composers he found that the USA allowed them to live on and continue to compose, but not always to build a reputation that Europe made possible before fascism. Things could go either way, as you might gather by comparing the fate of Stravinsky and Hindemith vs. Korngold and Bartok.

Circumstances help explain how the "Cello Concerto in F major, Op. 72" has been forgotten completely, Written for the famed cellist Piatigorsky and premiered by him under Toscanini such auspicious beginnings did not translate into long term recognition. Some 80 years later we now stand before the nicely performed and well recorded evidence that the "Cello Concerto" is in no way deserving of such neglect. It is a work of boldness, heroic virtuosity, thematic wealth and dramatic arc. Cellist Smith, conductor Yamada and the Houston Symphony give us ample means to appreciate this music. . . though it may not be at the very cutting edge of the Modernism of the times. It may in fact be Impressionist and Late Romanticist more so than not, yet not unoriginally so. It is powerful and engaging fare, well worth the price of admission for its 30-minute three-movement presence.

Filling out the release are a number of cello-piano transcriptions. Most of the music will be quite familiar to most all readers, yet in this configuration it is all made anew. So we get Castelnuovo-Tedesco's reworking of Mozart's Serenade from Don Giovanni, two arias from Cherubino's Le Nozzi di Figaro (as arranged by Smith for his recording), the fourth and fifth movements from Ravel's "Miroirs," and a version of Rossini's "Figaro" from The Barber of Seville.  And finally the program ends with Heifetz's arrangement of the first part of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's  "Sea Murmurs."

The second half of the program is not going to set your brain on fire exactly, yet it is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-played segment. The main attraction is definitely the "Cello Concerto" and it will be a boon to any Castelnuovo-Tedesco fan! Recommended.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Duo Noire, Night Triptych, Thomas Flippin, Christopher Mallett

In something a little under an hour guitar Duo Noire treat us to six New Music duos for classical guitar. All this in the new album Night Triptych (New Focus FCR210), the title of which is derived from the composition of the same name by Golfam Khayam.

Duo Noire, aka Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett are talented exponents of the contemporary classical guitar, with technique to spare and an interpretive acumen that serves them well in bringing to us the subtleties and sonic pleasures of each composition in the program. As I listened repeatedly to the offering I was reminded that there is something of a consensus nowadays as to the firmly grounded middle ground upon which contemporary classical guitar music currently stands. The edge of conventional soundings are a part of the presentation, a harmonic-melodic adventuresomeness, and a kind of synthesis of what the guitar has been and can be classically but also as drawn out of general guitar practice in the past century. The result is a sort of state-of-the-art view of what we can understand and appreciate today.

So as a whole there are bellwether bench marks and distinctive sound universes to be had in the program at large. It gives us Clarice Assad's "Hocus Pocus," Mary Kouyoumdjian's "Byblos," Courtney Bryan's "Soli Deo Gloria," the previously mentioned "Night Triptych" Gity Razaz's "Four Haikus," and finally Gabriella Smith's "Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain." All the composers are living and all the works show a great respect for the traditional and more modern idiomatic world of the guitar and its special sounds.

This program is a bit of a sleeper. Nothing introduces itself with skyrockets and 28 tuba fanfares, and so much the better because the music and performances stand out after a while of listens. It is thoroughgoing, most musical in design. It is not music to upset the applecart of assumptions in the contemporary music spheres. It does not need to do that because one gets something of lasting worth not just a shock blast of newness! I most definitely recommend this to any with an interest in New Music for guitar. Bravo!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Christian Wolff, Two Orchestra Pieces

Take the Cage School composers for granted at your own peril. Earl Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff avoided Serialism and forged stubbornly their own paths. And I believe time will be kind to their reputations as a result. They are some American originals and they sound ever fresh.

That is all well and good yet moreover now I find that later Christian Wolff constitutes some major sleeper works, judging by the startlingly interesting new release, Two Orchestra Pieces (New World 80796-2).

What first of all marks this release as special are the performances. Later Christian Wolff carefully scores every note and the interpretation must be exact yet moving. "John, David" (1998) gets focused attention from the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiberg under Lothar Zagrosek. Robyn Schulkowsky dramatically and adeptly handles the important solo percussion role.  "Rhapsody" (for three orchestras) (2009) gets similar careful understanding by Ostrvska banda with three conductors doing a fine job.

The liners sum up how both works exemplify several trends in New Music performance by the Modern Classical orchestra. "John, David" is a masterful unravelling of the expanded sonarities of the expanded symphony orchestra and the percussion part further opens up the timbral spectrum so that we enter a fantasmagorical terriane that is not only exemplary but strikingly special in its deep subtle expression.

"Rhapsody" groups the total orchestral forces into three unusually mixed concentrations, decidedly not the sections one has become so used to from the orchestrational practices of the standard repertoire.

All that would be not unusual to hear nowadays, of course. What sets this music apart is the special facticity of the combined utterances. Nothing is exactly what you might expect in High Modernism of the standard sort. There are no moments of rote note-spinning. Every moment in both cases has its way and brings to our ears and musical beings a kind of discerning difference that in the end makes these two works function in their own specially original ways.

It is a something you hear in the music from the first listen on. Later listens confirm the first impression and the non-cliche quality of every note makes every listen a near tabula rasa thing.

You who follow the New Music and Modernism, you should definitely consider this album. It is a high point of the "Modern Year" For me at least. It reminds me how Christian Wolff is a beautiful thing, a thing apart!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Henze, Violin and Viola Works, Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Roderick Chadwick

Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012)--he is an artist-composer whose full breadth must be gauged if we are to appreciate fully.. I will admit that in my case I am still in the process of exploring his output, as no doubt more than of a few of my readers are as well. Naxos has been instrumental in this wise and a new volume continues the exposure as they fight the good fight to cover a broad spectrum of New Music. I refer to the release at hand, namely Henze's Violin and Viola Works (Naxos 8.573886) as performed nicely by Peter Sheppard Skaerved on violin and viola and Roderick Chadwick at the piano.

The works cover a long stretch of time, from the youthful 1946 "Violin Sonata" to the Millennial-eve 1999 "Peter Doll zum Abschied" for solo violin. We are treated to four major works and a couple of miniatures. 

Perhaps the most interesting of the four is the "Violin Sonata" of 1946, mostly because it is unexpected if you do not know his early period well. Henze was subjected to the angst and poverty of the German post-WWII period yet was in the middle of study under the tutelage of Wolfgang Fortner at the time he wrote the sonata. The work has an expressive Modern feel that is decidedly pre-Serialist  and so shows a bit more direct a melodic clout.  It is memorable for that. The liners point to this work as a sort of prelude to the "Violin Concerto" that was to follow shortly thereafter. However it stands well on its own in any event.

On the other hand the "Pollicino: Violin Sonatina" of 1979 manages to be extraordinarily expressive and haunting while being more contemporaneous to the Serial world of High Modernism still then in full flush at the time.

The somewhat more radically abstract "Solo, Violin Sonata" of two years prior is a gem of constructive architecture, rangy and harmonically expanded-ambiguous as one might expect of his central style of the era, yet too most definitely a product of an actively brilliant musical mind. It is theatrical piece where there is a  homage paid to the humanist Italian Renaissance poet Poliziano and "death is admitted into the cheerful world of the pastoral" in the composer's words.

The final "Viola Sonata" (1979) brings out the burnished woodiness of the viola in a landscape where the piano makes an equal set of statements for a kind of constant unfolding, a noting of consistent insistence and significance.

The total impression is wall-to-wall worthiness, High Modernism of the highest caliber played with total conviction and passion by Skaerved and Chadwick. This is a very enlightening release for Henze appreciators and something to explore without fear for those who wish to broaden their appreciation. Keep in mind you will need to hear this a number of times if you expect to get a full understanding of what is happening. It is worth the trouble, surely. Henze was in his own way brilliant. He shows us how here.






Thursday, July 19, 2018

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Piano Sonatas opp. 8, 49bis & 56 (Nos. 2, 4 and No Number) , Elisaveta Blumina


As much as there seems to be a renaissance or perhaps even a naissance surrounding the works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) it is comforting to me. I happen to share in the budding and gathering enthusiasm about his music. I will not rehearse here the difficulties he encountered with his existence as a Jewish-Polish transplant to the USSR during WWII and his subsequent compositional and personal struggle with forces that did not favor him in spite of his extraordinary talents. That is a backdrop to explain why most people were not aware of his music at all until recently. But in the end of course the music is what lives for us now.

So there are further reasons to appreciate his body of works with a recent, excellently performed recording of three of his later Piano Sonatas opp. 8, 49bis & 56 (CPO 555 104-2). In other words, these lovely recordings are of his Sonata No. 2, Number 4 and 49bis, the latter of which is not as of now numbered. Elisabetha Blumina gives us these new readings on the heels of her recording of his Sonata No. 1 and his "Children's Notebooks." I have not heard that recording but based upon the one at hand I imagine it is very worth hearing. I've reviewed Weinberg's complete piano opus and one or two recordings of some of these sonatas (type "Weinberg" in the search box above). They remain essential in each their own way

But I am especially impressed as I listen a good many times with Elisabetha Blumina's performances. She is exacting as one would expect but also there is a virtuoso mastery to be heard that makes these rather wonderful pieces come very much alive. My first superficial hearings of Weinberg as a whole made me think, "Oh, he was very influenced by Shostakovich." He was a good friend of his fellow composer and Shostakovich spoke very highly of his talents during his lifetime. And with the piano works you most certainly do here something of an affinity with Prokofiev as well. With all three at their best you hear an uncanny brilliance in how they derive a sometimes very lyrical demeanor but tempered also with a hard and perhaps even brittle despair, not to sound too pat but it is something I do love about all three of them. What at first sounded a bit derivative I now feel is equally special, original and it could well be that Shostakovich influenced Weinberg but equally Weinberg in turn influenced Shostakovich? I say this after listening very intensely to Weinberg's music.

The sonatas here are uniformly worthwhile. If you love Modernist solo piano and seek something new and very worthy, get this! If you do not know Weinberg, get this. If you do not have any of his piano music, get this. Or even if you do, for the performances, get this!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Kalevi Aho, Timpani Concerto, Piano Concerto 1, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra


In the course of doing this Modern Music blog site since 2011 I have been fortunate to come upon the music of Kalevi Aho (b. 1949), the Finnish composer whose music we again encounter happily today (type his name in the index search box above for earlier reviews of his music). The CD at hand covers two notable concerted works, the recent "Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra" (2015) and the 1988-89 "Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra" (BIS-2306). Both are performed with precision and enthusiasm by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Erkki Lasonpalo (Timpani Concerto) or Eva Ollikainen (Piano Concerto). The solo parts are most capably handled by Ari-Pekka Maenpaa (Timpani) and Sonia Fraki (Piano).

What a repeated series of listens have revealed to me are two concertos (he has written 28 in all thus far) of real weight and striking expression. Whether or not anyone would agree with me I hear Aho as a kind of original Modern successor to the later works of Carl Nielsen. Both have a certain "characteristic" manner of proceeding chromatically in ways that bring out a thorough orchestrational command and a clearly forwarded thematic presence. Aho understandably is the more Modern in his harmonic edginess and lesser tendency to resolve the whole in some absolute sense.

There are few works in the repertoire for solo timpani either accompanied or unaccompanied. Elliot Carter's  "Eight Pieces for Four Timpani" is an exception. I rack my brain without coming up with another., which doesn't mean there are no others, just that my minds blanks at the prospect. Aho's concerto gives us a very stimulating and rather demanding solo part with intricate melodic contours and idiomatic articulation. The timpani carries the concerto without being a continually dominant voice. The orchestra has a great deal to say and says it well. There are times when the snare drum intertwines with the timpani part and it all sounds right. If you expect later on to whistle the timpani melody while you go through your daily rounds, think again. This is quite complex Modern music after all. If any new timpani piece might be expected to enter the repertoire this could well be it. Aho carries the day handily and in a most lively way.

"The Piano Concerto No. 1" stands out as a boldly brash piece with a lithe mercurial piano part and memorable piano-orchestral exchanges of great excitement and contentful thematics. If the handling of themes seems slightly more hard-edged than is the case in the Timpani Concerto, one must assume that the inspiration of having every bit of the piano before the composer as the prime solo mover would have given him less fetters and allowed his imagination to soar more freely. It ends the two-part program in a most rousing way and if the motillic ghost of Prokofiev sometimes looms in the background it is stylistically natural and not in the least bit derivative.

So there we are with this one. The SACD/CD compatible recording sounds bright and well staged and the music is of the highest caliber. This will appeal to all Aho aficionados and would be fair and attractive game for any follower of the Modern with a capital /m/.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Vyacheslav Artyomov, The Way to Olympus

The album up for discussion today as far as I know is the third such album devoted to the music of Vyacheslav Artyomov on Divine Art Records. I've covered the other two on these pages so type "Artyomov" in the search box above to see those. Taken as a whole we find a composer of decided importance. He is Modern in Russian ways that perhaps come out of a lineage which includes Scriabin in his most mystical phase, but then no it is really an experience far more than of some lineage when you take it all in itself and for itself.

This new release is called The Way to Olympus (Divine Art 25171). The centerpiece of the program is the 33 minute "Symphony: The Way to Olympus." It is a beautifully paced, sprawling and highly evocative sound poem for orchestra, here recorded some time ago but sounding gloriously well. The USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra perform the work nicely under the baton of Timur Mynbayev. The name of the orchestra indicates an earlier recording date, of course. The work is very dramatic, moving, original.

Artyomov's story has been a sad one of a life of unrecognition, state hostility to his art, a difficult and lonely time and a heroic determination that perhaps can be sensed in the deepest recesses of his orchestral expressions. I hear a penetrating inwardness and a contrastingly outward skyrocketing elation to the music.

"Gurian Hymn" has a lovely unfurling with three solo violins nicely weaving delicate filigrees of sadness and mystery over a rather strikingly evocative orchestral palette.

The piano "Preludes to Sonnets" follow and they have a searching post-Scriabinesque poetic clout that sets us up well for the rarified brightness of the following "Concert of the 13" for piano and chamber ensemble. The piano part is bracing! It is another significant segment to a very significant program.

I find the performances and recording quality highly appropriate and appealing.

Artyomov deserves our undivided attention. I would go so far to say without hesitation that Artyomov on the basis of this volume and the others comes before us as a tragically underappreciated Modern master, a Russian Ives in terms of creating  beautifully advanced music in spite of social neglect and isolation. His time has come. By all means listen to this album. Then if you are as impressed as I am get the others too!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Paul Moravec, The Blizzard Voices, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

In ideal circumstances what the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose is doing will redefine the US Modernist world by highlighting deserving works and composers from this century and last. I say ideally because I no longer know with the world in a certain chaos whether cultural institutions may always have the impact they would in earlier times. That includes the impact of music writers like me and then of course the general concert scene and the world of audio releases of works. I have been covering many of the BMOP CD releases and today I speak of another. It has been out for a little while and I have been meaning to cover it for a while. So today I do.

The release at hand is a recording of  The Blizzard Voices (BMOP Sound 1054), a rather monumental choral-orchestral oratorio from 2008 based on the poetry of Ted Kooser. The work was written by living composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957) The poems were adapted into a libretto by Mark Campbell. The theme is that of the Western Plains of the US and a blizzard that a group of would-be settlers experienced and in the end did or did not finally endure. The blizzard took place in historical terms in Nebraska in January, 1888.

The work is scored for in addition to orchestra six vocal soloists and an SATB chorus, the latter in the form of the New England Conservatory Concert Choir and Chamber Singers directed by Erica J. Washburn.

The soloists and body of performer do full justice to this rather involved work. As to the music itself? It has a monumental, heroic passion, and a roughly-hewn-of-granite strikingly bold quality. There is a subtle sort of Americana at play that alludes to the humble musical life of the Plains, of hymn tunes and songs sung in everyday settings that do not point to Grand Art so much as music on the ground floor of existence, the sort of music most people experience in a pre-industrial setting, not product, not "pop" in that there are no surveys taken, just music that exists among people because music is like that. The strain of folkishness is not obvious like perhaps some of Copland might be. It emerges subtly from time-to-time but the panorama of bleak and in the end lethal winter predominates with a harsh sobriety and heroic despair born of the place and time of the story. It is an aesthetically derived hardness that does not point back to the composer any more than Mark Twain "was" Huckleberry Finn.

In other words this is genuinely gifted aural story-telling. I sometimes remember Vaughan Williams in his best narrative mood mode, or yes, Copland in that vein, and some of the other later Operatic-Oratorio master that it would be pointless and even misleading to name because it would imply there is some imitation happening here which there is decidedly not.

It is masterful composing from someone I surely want to hear more of. The music seems destined for larger audiences. It is accessible and more comprehensible for its tethering to dramatic content than some purely abstract Modern tone poem. It is Modern in its thickly edgy harmonic fullness and post-Romantic unsentimental expressive feeling-fullness. The vocal parts stand out for the natural rightness. The orchestral parts work fully well as a fleshing out of the drama and an aesthetic canvas apart from the plot and its content.

If I wind-up my description of the music to that for the present, it is not that there is nothing more to be said. I leave that to others. Many listens after the first one of The Blizzard Voices and I come away convinced that this is a work of importance, wonderfully rendered. Varese remarked long ago that "the present-day composer refuses to die!" It remains true. We owe something to that present-day by supporting our creators. So buy this.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Elizabeth A. Baker, Quadrivium

Quadrivium (Aerocade Music AM008 2-CDs) is a nicely sprawling, major dramatically vibrant work of the Modern Music world, brought to us by composer-performer Elizabeth A. Baker. She wrote all the music with the help of Nathan Anthony Corder (Sashay) and she has also written the poetry and lyrics that occur in the course of the work. In the process of the work's sounding Elizabeth performs on piano, electronics, voice, guitar, percussion and toy piano. So those are the particulars.

As to the work itself, after five listens I must say I am mightily impressed with it all. Elizabeth makes a point, rightfully so, of providing us with an elegantly worded plea for inclusion in our musical worlds--of all categories of humanity, women, LGBTQs, minorities, in short everyone inclusive. And Quadrivium assumes this viewpoint and at the same time portrays a world in the clutches (if I might interpret her aims) of a sometimes mechanized behemoth that neither accepts differences nor does it always have need for the creative artists who occupy our world and give it value where it otherwise might not or can not have it. If there is a kind of insistence on the creative underground that we advance as a whole both aesthetically and ethically, Ms. Baker surely is one of the champions of such things.

And all that would be admirable even if it were left there. But on top of it all Ms. Baker has a deeply conceptual imagination that allows her to fashion a rather monumental, musically and content-fully profound opus. Here is where we stand today, Elizabeth is saying. And that where includes recitations as well as solo piano and electronic, ensemble and small ensemble sections each of which is a sort of microcosm of where New Music is today. So tonality is there, but not for a look backwards, rather as a mainstay of human music making. There is abstraction, there is a repetition that layers subtly ever, a droning that we have in our heads now as much as a result of mechanical and electronic sounds of the environment along with a sort of cosmic centering.

This is beautiful music, exacted and not redacted if you will, not afraid to say what needs saying, to play what needs playing, to give us a very pleasureful and sometimes conflicted music representation of the earthtime now, for us, for us who listen.

In my case I do not just listen. The music has grabbed me so it says something much more than an organized series of tomes and tones. The work begins with the beautiful and discerning piano solo music that rotates in a very rangy way before sounding some tender diatonics. From there we segue quietly to ambient electronics with inside-the-piano whispers that are almost like a light-bulb afterburn in your mind's eye. The keyed piano returns with a cycle-not-cycle that expands and variationalizes what came before, yet there is new development and new thematic content too.

I will not describe the passage of section to section because there is too much and it might be slightly pedantic to rattle off a laundry list of what happens. That sequence in the end will be yours to apprehend anyway. It proceeds to a kind of continual opening up of expression, with electronics and recitation becoming ever more re-grounded and yet musically it feels as an unfolding, a very long and full unfolding rather than a kind of a-b-c-d-e-f-g thingness.

The music gives us a highly original take and the text-poetry dwells in the very-much-present.

I must say I do very much love this very living work. It is as contemporary as anything you will hear, and it is not afraid to combine deftly timbral and sound-color beauty in striking ways. The music is visceral. The words are frank yet poetic.

I take it that this is Elizabeth A. Baker's first album of compositions. It is auspicious for that. A brilliant and evocative piece that presages great things to come I would warrant. It is already here. She is here!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Antti Samuli Hernesniemi, Bridge (Silta), Compositions 3, Music for Clavinova and Piano


No one who knows the New Music world we live in today would tell you that you might expect just one possibility when you are exposed to a new composer these days. There are I suppose limits to what one might hear but I can say honestly that I do not detect what the boundaries might be. So every new exposure gives one a new possibility. I bring this up because the music of living Finnish composer Antti Samuli Hernesniemi as I am hearing it on his recent CD Bridge/Silta (MSR Classics 1615) opens up interesting ground on the piano/clavinova (MIDI driven piano) front. This is the third volume of his compositions released on MSR and the first I have heard.

It is an example of how open the New Music world really is. Hernesniemi writes/performs piano music that may be entirely independently generated but as I listen I am reminded of the whirring movement and fanfarish attack of the late very brilliant piano artist Cecil Taylor. Now he came out of "Jazz" of course, which is only to say that he was initially rooted in Jazz style and that his ensemble work included a rhythm section and other soloists. He studied in his formative years at New England Conservatory where he had Classical training--and so did Miles or Sam Rivers have this training among many others. That is not to say that we can in anyway explain Cecil Taylor by his exposure to both Jazz and Classical music and ideas. He is the sort of brilliance who would have emerged as an important artist no matter what his formal training might bhave been. And by the same token the piano music of Hernesniemi could have been derived out of that Jazz and Modern Classical exposure too. Or maybe he heard this regardless. In the end it does not matter except to remark that if you love the explosive motility of Cecil Taylor's playing then this music will attract you for its splattering sprawling energy.

And there are some more inwardly tuneful works here that are a thing apart from that, yet in the main, there is an open formed "total tremolo" approach here that most characterizes the music.

All that is simple in basis yet the working out is original and exciting to hear. So if you want new that stimulates you invariably, there is Bridge. If you are an open soul I believe this will be much to your liking.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gabriel Faure, Integrale des Melodies pour Voix et Piano

Music enthusiasts who favor certain artists and/or composers tend to respond well to a "complete" anything by those people. If you know you like the music of that person, it stands to reason that you would wish to hear everything that person might have created or performed in a particular category or genre. So I felt this way when I found I had the chance to hear and review the new Integrale des Melodies pour Voix et Piano by Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) (Atma Classique ACD2 2741 4-CDs). The first thing that hit me on opening up the set was the extremely attractive graphics and very practical setup with all four CDs and the booklet bound in gatefold style--in other words as a single, integral "hard covered" CD  book.

The artists and their readings are of course central to the success of such a project. A core aspect of that is the continual presence of Olivier Godin playing a gloriously sweet 1859 Erard instrument.
The vocalists, separately and on rare occasions in various combinations, are graced with beautiful voices that are not too operatic and seemingly perfectly suited to the song form as Faure practiced it. They are Helene Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Antonio Figueroa, Marc Boucher. Each is a true artist and a wonderful Faure interpreter.

A confession before I get deeper into my experience of this music. When I started seriously listening to Classical and Modern Classical music I tended in part to get ever deeply into composers I was exposed to partly out of chance and partly from reading up on the history and development of the music. So for various reasons in the realm of French music I gravitated toward Franck, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Milhaud, Honegger, Poulenc and Messiaen, etc. I at first missed Faure partly because it was easy without coaching not to understand completely  the continuity and change of the progressive unfolding of important French composers in the Late Romantic period, and partly because I came slightly later to vocal music--especially in the case of Faure, the songs and choral music that made him so important. So in time I came to listen to these things and came to love it, along with the solo piano music as well.

So in terms of my listening to the Faure song output, I listened closely to a select group of the songs sung by singers I respected very much, but in my hearing of the wealth of them I was missing a good many of them. So in the Godin and company complete song set I have happily the chance to hear the all of them. After repeated listens I am very glad to find that there is a consistent brilliance of compositional presence, a lyrical yet very focused intensity to them all Faure was a voice that sat between the heavily impassioned Late Romantic Berlioz and the dazzlingly dappled transparency of Debussy and Ravel. Faure in hi songs have a good deal of feeling yet always a kind of light touch, more translucent and so very much more French than some of the other great song masters of his times.

The 108 songs-melodies are a formidable gathering by any standard. The jacket notes inform us that this set is the first to respect Faure's specifications completely as to voice type for each song and the original key indications. The Erard is tuned to 435 Hz, which was decreed by the French Ministry as the standard in 1859. So in so many ways these are the works faithfully rendered as Faure intended them to be be heard. We begin with Op. 1, No. 1 and go from there to those last songs on the Op. 100s. Is there increased clarity, increased introspection as we go from early to late? I hear it something like that, though I have neither sat down and done some statistical aural correlations.Even then some of my perceptions are perforce subjective. I embrace that the music as all music sounds a certain way to me and for me as you must also have your own take. Intersubjectivity may confirm my impressions or it may not. No matter. I am neither qualified to write a PhD dissertation on such a thing nor at this point would I want to!

The point in all this is simple. The music is essential, all of it if you have the time to devote to it and want to expand your appreciation and understanding of the French Art Song in a period central to the development of Modernism. The performances are moving and poetic. The music impeccable, expressive, even ravishing in its beauty and expressive determination.

So if you have the inclination to get this, I believe you will be happy to delve into the wealth of fine music! Get this, then!



Monday, July 9, 2018

Almeida Prado, Complete Cartas Celestes 4, Aleyson Scopel

Once again I am happy to check in with you on another composer of true merit.  Before this CD series came my way recently I knew virtually nothing about the Brazilian Almeida Prado, or to give his complete name Jose Antonio Rezende de Almeida Prado (1943-2010). His sprawling series of works for the piano, the Cartas Celestes were some  18 in all, 15 for solo piano. They address the stars in the heavens, literally, and who would find that uninteresting in itself?

Aleyson Scopel has embarked on a complete recording of the piano works. I covered the first volume a while ago and I loved it. See my write up by typing Prado in the index search box at the top left of the page. And we look at today what seems to be the final volume, No. 4 (Grand Piano 747), which covers Nos. 13 and 16-18. Prado studied with Nadia Boulanger and Messiaen and their formative influences are in his music. The heavenly ambiance of Messiaen's beautiful piano style  has some bearing on what we hear in these works, along with something familial in George Crumb's "Microcosmos" piano works as well. Yet for all that the cosmic spaciousness and mystery of these final works in the series have a definitive originality about them.

No. 13 was completed in 2001; 16-18 in 2010 just before his death. All four have a place for the space about the stars and a place for the stars themselves-- a silence and reverberation for the mystery of the in betweens. Vacuum is never truly empty and the reverberation-silences are as much part of the music as the notes.

Aleyson Scopel reads these works with care and poeticism. The deepness of Prado in a Modern lyrical way can be well-gauged in this volume. Boulez might not have approved of his unification of tonality and edge tonalility but Boulez disliked Messiaen for that also. We do not have to espouse some all-or-nothing view. It is not a thing of our times after all to be multifold! And Prado is brilliant at it.  He does not fail to engage and delight, to cause you to ponder and drift into the universe around us. Bravo! Prado is a discovery if you do not know him. Very recommended.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Charles Wuorinen, Vol. 3, The Group for Contemporary Music

Ever since high school when I stumbled upon some excellent Charles Wuorinen records that had just come out, Maestro Wuorinen has been one of the most important of the American Moderns to me. I made sure to get a review copy of his music on Charles Wuorinen, Vol. 3 (Bridge 9490). And then, I did not notice that a number of review CDs had fallen off my pile into a no-man's land that I only now rediscovered. So if I am late reviewing this gem it is no reflection on the quality of the music.

Charles is a central figure in the High Modernist camp. A major force on the New York Music scene when I was younger, he remains one of the very best things to come out of Columbia's famed music department in the '60s. The recent music of Vol. 3 (2007, 2010, 2013) gives any dedicated New Music follower a wonderful set of compositions for study and enjoyment, excellently performed by the Group for Contemporary Music under the composer.

The first thing that hit me hearing this program is how well wrought is Wuorinen's music and the newer compositions are not at all lacking in this architectonic sublimity. Listen to the "Fourth Piano Sonata," a fiendishly difficult yet elation-bringing 20 minutes of otherworldly density and drive! There is so much going on in this work that you must hear it a number of times before the wind fully catches your sail. Anne-Marie McDermott acts in a Promethean-heroic way to realize the complex music with ultimate comprehensibility and rangy excitement. Who says High Modernism is abstruse? Not me. In truth I think I might well put this on for any musical person and they I think would take notice. It is not just for the rare few.

"It Happens Like This" has an extraordinary presence in its 40 minutes for a group of four vocalists and chamber orchestra. It perhaps is as Post-Serial as it is Late Serial in the exploding forward of expression. But then Wuorinen has never been a formalist or a formulaic voice. Some of his writing here for all four voices and chamber instrumentalists passes the usual expressionist heights to something unexpected and quite stirring! There is operatic dialog and a very rewarding interplay of voices and instrumentalists. It is a major theatrical-vocal work of our time I would assert.

And the opener is not as all-encompassing for length yet very much Wuorinen at his best. Vocalist and chamber players achieve a simultaneous horizontal flow that truly soars.

So are we hearing or will you hear just another High Modernist blip-bloop set of abstractions? Well I resent the question! Seriously the answer is. no it isn't and also, in contradiction, yes the very best of bleep-bloops! It is about time in my opinion that anti-Modernists out there (perhaps most now dead) get with the program and embrace what enquiring musical minds have been enjoying now for almost 100 years. Modernism has not failed, the Anti-Modernist voices are instead rendered obsolete. Perhaps the paradox of the Avant Garde in general as we look back is that the music was not ahead of its time so much as the audiences, most listeners at some point, were impossibly behind the times. We who have spent our lives in a mostly urban modern chaos respond to such masters as Wuorinen with some relief. What I mean to say is that for us such composers create sense and a higher order...sense and order and truly transcendent expression out of the muck of what seems at times a senseless chaos of life.

So all you who have need to understand where we are and how it relates to where we have been, Charles Wuorinen is a composer I might suggest you listen closely to on this album. Listen a few times, maybe more than a few times. Charles Wuorinen has been with us forever, it feels like. Yet no, he is in historical time, the same as what we live in now. And he still is here, happily for us. So listen to what he has given us recently! You will be glad of it, I do think.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Victor Herbiet, The Road to the Ethereal Gate

If one is an avid New Music explorer one does best I think when one approaches a new artist or composer with no preconceived ideas or expectations. By virtue of the newness of music we are given the chance to hear what "serious" music there is in our world and how it all is ever new. Not knowing Victor Herbiet and his music then, I put today's offering on the first time a few weeks ago and I was treated to a series of unexpected stylistic turns, all in the end leading one to a happy place of listening. I refer to the album on tap, The Road to the Ethereal Gate (Centredisques 25118).

This album showcases Herbiet as composer of music that features to my ears mostly alto and soprano saxophones. If he also plays tenor I somehow heard it as an alto. That says something about the brightness of his tone. Victor is a fine player and appears throughout as the solo saxist or the sax in the well-mapped chamber blends. His playing and writing for sax acknowledge the Jazz heritage but also the Classical sax inheritance. Think "Pictures at an Exhibition" and the like for the Classical sax style.

The music ranges widely yet with a personal stylistic fingerprint. "Tango a Trois" for example looks at the Argentinian tango and takes a trio of alto, violin and piano to a place that echoes the grand past of the dance music while saying something personal. "Twelve Tone Rag" does something similar with Ragtime.

From there we brush against further sax intersections with chamber configurations and solo flights. The second half of the program features a good deal of music for solo sax, technically demanding, lyrical, jazz inflected but in a Modern Classical framework for the most part. "The Four Elements," "Through the Ethereal Gate" and "On the Shores of Eternity," the later two with a set up where a theremin responds in an programmed way to the sax phrasings. . .  these three works define nicely for us a singular vision of the virtuoso possibilities of sax that have lyrical and expressive clout.

After a good number of listens I am happy with this music, quite so. It does not seek a cutting edge view of what one can explore, yet in no way does it advocate for some status quo mainstream. One might say the music on the whole is quirky? There is a nicely stubborn individualism at work in that you feel that Herbiet does the music he does out of an inner conviction that each foray is right and for itself. So then in no way is this the music of a follower; more so a leader and sax advocate. I certainly appreciate the music. If you are open to a new-with-roots, yet a refusal to follow the beaten path, and especially if you love the saxophone, this one may well be for you. Bravo!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Rawsthorne and Other Rarities, The Music of Alan Rawsthorne and Others

Since it is the July 4th holiday here in the States, I come on to the blog somewhat briefly before I attempt to burn meat on a gas-fired device. I would be remiss though if I did not spend some time this morning writing about an unusual and gratifying release. I speak of the recent CD Rawthorne and Other Rarities (Divine Art 25169).

It is a most illuminating look at the music of the rather obscure 20th century English composer Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971), plus eight more rare and rather whimsical compositions that fit in with the Rawsthorne, and all but one short work is here enjoyed in World Premier Recordings.

For the Alan part of the disk we hear his "Chamber Cantata," "Practical Cats" (as arranged and edited by Peter DIckinson), and finally his "String Quartet in B minor." These are idiosyncratic works with some nod to things like Schoenberg's "Pierrot" and Walton's "Facade," but not slavishly or even exactly obviously. More like something that was "in the air" in those days. Rawsthorne is quirkily Modern and very English, so quite charming and for the enjoyment of any and all Anglophiles in the musical world today.

Then the fascinating yet very obscure works we hear in addition have delight going on for us if we open up. That is in the main. Not all are quite masterpieces, but what do you expect? Odd and rarely heard works by Vaughan Williams, David Ellis, Malcolm Lipkin, Arthur Bliss, Donald Waxman, Karel Janovicky, Basil Deane, Raymond Warren and Halsey Stevens, names which may be somewhat or very familiar, others rather unfamiliar.

The whole hangs together in a quixotically stubborn way and one if like me smiles and nods. Here is something so well off the beaten path one might find oneself hacking through to make a clearing, but happily so! I recommend this if you want something Early-Modern-worthy and completely quirky. Performances I should mention are very first-rate!