Wednesday, August 15, 2018
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
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.
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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!