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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Leslie Tung, Theme and Variations, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn

I discuss a CD this morning on a central institution of form in the classical world, the Theme and Variations (MSR MS16833). This is a compendium of three sets of such things for solo piano by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. Leslie Tung realizes all three on piano with energy, drama. charm and contrasting grace. The instrument utilized is a 1983 copy of a circa 1795 instrument made in Munich by J. Dulcken. The primary sounds are a rather dry upper range and a somewhat wiry and fuzzy lower range. It is slightly brighter than the typical period pianoforte of the day, yet nontheless can be recognized as a copy of an early instrument by those telltale high and low registers. Absent is the kind of intonationally quasi-untempered quality one sometimes gets with the older models.

The Mozart Variations on "Unser Dummer Pobel Meint" in G Major, K. 455 and the Haydn Andante with Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII:B show us in every way the inventive brilliance of these Classical Era masters. The concluding Beethoven "Eroica" Variations and Fugue in E-Flat Major, Op. 35 goes them one step further with one of Beethoven's most well loved themes and then gives us inventions characteristically model building the way Beethoven can be nearly extra-terrestrial.

The theme and variations of course historically was as much or even more a live and spontaneous showcase for the inventive brilliance of a living composer-instrumentalist. Bach was famous for his. But then so were the composers represented here, supreme masters all.  An on-the-spot set of T & V's were unexpected, surprising and as in-the-moment as a Jazz master improviser can be today. The written out versions we hear are the next best thing and we are lucky to have them and hear them still.

Tung plays reflectively, like he was made for the music, which clearly he is. The approach centers around density, velocity, variety and of course contrast. It is actually fun to listen to this music, as it should be.

Leslie Tung gives us the period-dynamo sound we need for these. Beautiful.

Monday, July 29, 2019

SPARK, Common Sense Composers' Collective, Friction Quartet

The institution of the String Quartet has been at least since Beethoven one of the primary loci for the most deeply ambitious and ambitiously deep music of so-called Western Civilization. The idea of deeply serious music is at the heart, rather naturally, of the Art Music project in general over the last hundreds of years and the artful chamber work that is for profundity more than standing ovations is at the heart of it. It is a part of that heart. So a program of New Music String Quartets promises to be something to concentrate upon, surely. We are not disappointed in this wise with a recent such volume entitled Spark (Innova 024) containing works by members of the Common Sense Composer's Collective as ably performed by the Friction Quartet.

The "Common Sense" in the collective name Common Sense Composers' Collective, according to erudite liner-note writer Richard Taruskin, is meant in the sense of Thomas Paine's rebellious group that asserted root values in a spirit of a regenerative movement forward. And Richard mentions most importantly Kant's related idea of a "shared faculty of judgement that allow[s] for intersubjective consensus." So the collective implicity or explicitly agrees on a way New Music should be.

Listening to the eight quartet works that comprise the program on this CD, one senses a kind of non-Systems oriented approach to the New Music work that one feels and hears on the pieces we hear. So these are in some sense more akin to the lineage of Bartok than Schoenberg, to simplify things for now. It is Modernity at the service of an aesthetic statement rather than, to simplify again, the opposite!

These works were originally intended for a series of premiers (during 2010) featuring two other quartets. SPARK has taken them over as "adoptive parents" as it were. They have made them definitive in the image they see fit to bring to them as they have learned them and imbibed in their spirit.

That is not to say that these works are somehow monolithic in style and intent. That they are not. There are repetitions at times without those phrases being doctrinaire Minimalistic. There are some "Jazz-Rock" elements at times as well.  There are edgy corners of some of the works that touch upon High Modernism, and there are elements that might very loosely be dubbed in some combination of High Modernism and Neo-Classical in some very vague way, not obviously.

None of the works are ephemeral or superfluous to my ears. Every one is a statement that bears repeated hearings. That applies to Marc Mellits and his  "V: Five" from his 3rd Quartet, Dan Becker and "Lockdown," John Halle and "Sphere(s)," Belinda Reynolds and "Open," Melissa Hui and  "Map of Reality," Ed Harsh and "Trill," Carolyn Yarnell and "Monographs" and finally Randall Woolf and "No Luck, No Happiness."

The performances are top notch, the compositions are weighty and well worth pondering, enjoying, experiencing. Very recommended.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Thomas Kozumplik, Child of the Earth, A Symphony for Percussion, Jonathan Haas, New York University Percussion Ensemble

Music Starts From Silence (CD MSFS-07) presents Thomas Kuzumplik's symphony for percussion entitled Child of the Earth (33 minutes). The New York University Percussion Ensemble under Jonathan Haas handles the performance challenges with with precision, enthusiasm and a little bit of soul. It comes to us in four movements that compare and contrast interestingly and imaginatively.

It is a work formed understandably of some nicely complex rhythmic-melodic elements as much through-composed as sometimes slightly hypnotic (without being specifically Minimalist). There is development, movement, growth throughout, along with a deft scoring knack. Mallets and pitched percussion instruments take on a critical role yet naturally unpitched "drums" per se are out front in the proceedings as well.

The final movement, "Beauty and its Passing," has much rhythmic drive and a near-Rock riff insistence that wins the day and brings considerable memorability to the experience of listening. The three movements before it are more overtly Modernist at times in their open through-composed qualities, yet they too often enough can be based around rhythmic or harmonic cycles and/or pedal point-drones that recur and vary.

When considering the intrinsic merits of both the work and its thoroughgoing idiomatic performance by Haas and the New York University Percussion Ensemble there is no doubt that we have a landmark percussion ensemble development, as much a pleasure to hear as it no doubt it is to perform. Very recommended for percussion and Modern New Music Postmodern enthusiasts.

James Romig, Still, Ashlee Mack, Piano

The liners to Still (New World 80802-2) (2016), for piano, with soloist Ashlee Mack, remind us of the mid-century Schoenberg-Stravinsky divide, when Serialism dominated one camp, Modern advanced "Tonalism" the other. A subset pitted Serialism against Cage and follower's Aleatoric music. When Reich came along and firmly established himself Serialism had by some reports won the day, and then at that point Minimalism asserted itself as a quasi-polar opposite. Today we are evolved into a number of camps and that is not necessarily a bad thing. And in the end American composers like Wuorenin reconciled the advanced rhythmic qualities of Stravinsky with the Serialist successions of Schoenberg, as the liner notes to this album so astutely point out.

James Romig (b. 1971) gives us what at first sounds like a kind of later-Morton-Feldman influenced Minimalism on the continuous 54-minute Still. There are a series of notes that get utilized, in a dreamy ritual haze of endlessly unfolding pedaled notes that sustain and thereby run together yet are never sounded simultaneously. The unfolding of notes do not appear rigorously derived as in the Serial, yet Romig's sort of linear, horizontal spinning out is not alien to Serialism nor to the left-to-right idea of the tone row coming to being and then getting reworked in variable ways. Still does in no way that I can hear do that in any covert way. Yet further to the ears the way the register and order of notes varies is potentially aleatoric or random seeming, though to the naked ear it is not clear if that is intentional or not and it does not matter. That in itself seems interesting to me but it would take us off track if I speculated any further on this sort of phenomenological aspect of listening to the Modern.

It is all a play on listener memory as it is necessary for she or he to put together the all-in-all of this music out of what seems like at first a "simple" series of unfolding plunks, and so too from what one senses at first there is more of a "ritual semi-diatonic" realm than a chromatic one, but never invariably  so. We do that piecing together  as we listen and feel more actively involved in the making sense of it than with some music, which in the latter case is more-or-less to spoon-feed you "meaning." There seems eventually more and more an intrusion of a stepped chromaticism into the quasi-diatonic towards the end, and that gives you pause, nicely so.

The execution of the notes never sounds as if it is instantiating a formula, but comes at you as a rubato with bunches of notes sounding regularly but not rigorously or in other words not rhythmically. The order and number and choice of notes varies over time but remains ever in legato-sustain soundings one after another in non-pulsating successions.

The specific intentions of Romig in this work would become more clear to you if you read the liner notes that accompany the CD. I merely follow the hint in this review but react as a naive listener. What matters is that the music evokes if you let it. It gives you a way to enter decidedly into a very dreamy sort of contemplation.

Ashlee Mack gives us a very convincing performance of a music that bears up very well under repeated listens. Viva James Romig for this one. Very recommended.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bruce Levingston, Piano, Citizen

Pianist Bruce Levingston makes full and effective use of the idea of a thematic program on his solo piano disk Citizen (Sono Luminus 92228). The idea for it all came out of an invitation to perform at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The pianist was inspired to meditate as a result on the myriad complexities of the state, as an incubator of culturally and categorically diverse figures from B.B King to Leontyne Price and William Faulkner, and as importantly, as a historical locus for the intense struggle against poverty, race and inequality.

In the end Levingston began to place the reflections on his home state into the larger global picture of a mutual recognition of the other--her or his own and the other's comparative history and differences in identity, the struggle with issues of patriotism and citizenship, full participation in the nation state as citizen and ultimately as citizen of the world.

And so the CD program Citizen, a grouping of diverse solo piano works focusing on the above and the idea that as citizens of the earth we all must insist on the preservation of each individual's human right to exist "with dignity and freedom," in the pianist's words. The works represented here are by composers "who have contemplated these issues...[working for the cause] of civility, humanity and love."

In the process there is a rather wide variety of pieces, mostly from our Modern Era. From a somewhat earlier time we have, and happily so, Frederic Chopin and three of his Mazurkas, nicely played. These dance works reflected Chopin's profound love of his homeland while he lived in Paris.

Bringing up the well-known composers front in no less a fashion is Black composer William Grant Sill (1895-1978) and his piece "Summertime." It shows Still's lifetime involvement in, among other things, translating the jazz-Afro-American nexus into New Music terms.

Lesser known but thematically appropriate works and composers form the core of the program's theme and make it a distinct entity. The title work "American Citizen" by Nolan Gasser (b. 1964) has its basis on Mississippi painter Marie Atkinson Hull (1890-1980) and her painting of the same name, depicting in 1936 one Mississippian--and so the painting's title  John Wesley Washington, An American Citizen, even though he was born into slavery and then existed outside of it after the Civil War. In the Jim Crow world he was forced to occupy he was most certainly not given the status of full citizenship--could not vote for example--and via the painting Hull wanted to make the statement that he should be treated with the equality his humanity should guarantee. The Gasser work puts all of this in musical terms.

From there we have David T. Little (b. 1978) and the world premier recording of his six movement "Accumulation of Purpose," honoring the Freedom Riders, Civil Rights Activists who rode through the US South in 1961 to protest segregation by race.

"Locations in Time (Three Pieces)" brings us to Augusta Gross (b. 1944) and this three part work that thematically relates to her acuity as a practicing psychologist. Each movement concerns a psychological state, an emotional feeling, a kind of being. The movement titles reflect this in "Other," "Elegy," and "Toward Night." The liners explain and I would recommend you read them as--and if--you want to hear and understand the music.

The world premier recordings of C. Price Walden's "Sacred Spaces" and his arrangement of "Amazing Grace" follow. The former is Walden's response to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Walden's identity as a Gay Christian. The spaces are churches, which Walden views correctly as in the best instances a sanctuary from bigotry and hatred, and for all that a cornerstone of important historical Civil Rights resistances. The concluding, iconic "Amazing Grace" rings forth in the Walden arrangement with full glory and refreshing pianism.

With that our listening is complete. The performances by Levingston are thoroughly artistic in the interpretive manner of the best of the great pianists. The cultural-ethical thematic focus of the program is uplifting and positive, and it in turn re-familiarizes us with and/or introduces us to works well worth our attention, giving us a programmatic kind of lyrical Modernism not in some monolithic way but with a varied set of works that stand for the right things, that come at us on the good side of history and remind us all what it should be to be righteously human, to embrace all of humanity, to redress inequality, all of those things that the Civil Rights Movement rightly insisted upon.

This is a good listen and deserves your support. Need I say more?

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Max Giteck Duykers, Folding Music, Ensemble IPSE

Ensemble IPSE plays the music of Max Giteck Duykers (b. 1972) in six compositions on the album Folding Music (New World Music 80811-2). The music takes its additive and subtractive basis from what the liners refer to as the Pierrot Lunaire Sextet, or in other words the instrumentation paradigmatically used in the Schoenberg song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, to accompany the sprechstimme speaking-singing soprano on the 1912 composition. That instrumentation consists of flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello and piano. Many chamber works that followed in Pierrot's wake had this basic instrumentation, sometimes with the addition of a percussionist or two.

The title composition Folding Music (2017) has the basic instrumentation plus a percussionist. Ensemble IPSE are further utilized for another five compositions making use of various possibilities contained within the sextet, so "Scatterloop" (2016) is for violin and piano, "The Way In" (2015) for soprano, cello and piano, "Twilight for Adored and Breathless Moments" (2007) for the Pierrot Sextet plus a single percussionist, "Arborescence" (2010, 2018) for piano solo, and finally "Dark Body" (2015) for a quartet of flute, violin, cello and piano.

All the music is finely wrought in a sort of melodically alive New Music-cum-High-Modern-Postmodernism distinguished by Duykers' highly inventive musical imagination. The variety of instrumental chamber configurations helps allow Duykers' to reinvent himself nicely with each chamber gem.

I will not run down the program with a blow-by-blow description of each work. I do recommend you listen to the album and appreciate the fine musicianship of the Ensemble IPSE members and the highly interesting music of Duykers. Bravo!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Bartok, The Wooden Prince, The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Susanna Malkki

The complete picture of Bela Bartok's development and flourishing, 1881-1945, is a complex one and in my view it takes a long time to assimilate fully his overall impact on the Modern music world. The legacy of Modernism ever shifts, ebbs, flows, changes and Bartok's recognition seems to grow stronger the more time passes. In my own case there are some works I am still coming to appreciate much better in time. That would concern (among others) his The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, the two of which are coupled on a new CD by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Malkki (BIS 2328).

These, as the nicely succinct liners put it in the accompanying booklet, do not fit into the same classification as the folk-music drenched works like the "Mikrocosmos," or the more advanced Modern icons like the later String Quartets or the "Concerto for Orchestra." Rather these two orchestral suite scenarios are meant to follow a story line as in a ballet. They are in fact "pantomimes"--"The Wooden Prince" with very much a balletic focus, "The Miraculous Mandarin" (1917-24) in contrast with only several actual dances. The former (1917), like the opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911-18), is based on a collaboration with fellow Hungarian, poet Bela Balaczs.

As the liners to the current CD suggest this music is not expressly Modern with a capital /M/ so much as it is along the lines of Stravinsky's Petrushka, brilliantly colorful orchestral music that shows true insight and vision but does not yet engage in a voyage to the farther regions of full Modernity.

Both works in this Helsinki/Malkki reading sound phenomenal. The audio is top-rate and the performances selflessly devoted to realizing Bartok's objectives, so it seems to me. This is not the place to try and capture the music descriptively. It is magical in the hands of Malkki but refuses to be pinned down. Yet with extensive listens it is music that impresses as rather tabula rasa--not really at all Late Romantic, yet not decisively Bartokian in the fully mature sense. In part that elusivity comes out of an impossibility to group these in the typical scenario of the 20th century. Yet the music is in no way anachronistic. That in itself is fascinating.

So these are versions to hear, absolutely, and enjoy. I am glad for the painstaking attention to detail and the very dynamic and thoroughgoing panache. Bravo.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mika Stoltzman and Richard Stoltzman, Palimpsest, Bach, Ravel, McKinley, Zorn, Piazzolla

The life and musical duo of marimba virtuoso Mika Stoltzman and renowned clarinet master Richard Stoltzman join together for a powerful tandem on Palimpsest (Avie 2409). It has the virtue of introducing a widely-ranging series of both rearranged classics and contemporary modern works in an unflagging variety that shows off the two artists and the surprisingly rich timbral musicality they conjure between the two of them.

The opening music centers around two rearranged works by JS Bach, the "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue" here for solo clarinet, then clarinet and added bandoneon (with H. Del Curto, see below) poignantly for the Fugue.

Then we hear the "Chaconne" in a special version for marimba. The fugal theme idea takes center of place again here on the marimba and gets articulated nicely and effectively for the warm wooden tone that is the instrument's hallmark.

From there we go into the ravishing "Pavanne our une infante defunte" by Ravel, which sounds all the more striking as a clarinet-marimba statement. The lyric brilliance takes on new life and vibrancy and we are the better for it.

From there William Thomas McKinley (1935-2015) emerges in sound with "Mostly Blues Nos. 2, 8 & 12." It is contemporary modernist as well as enriched by US Jazz-ish folkways.

The John Zorn title work "Palimpsest"is a very idiomatically Modern pulsating work with an attractive marimba motor-sensory pulsation and a wonderfully rangy and dynamic clarinet part. It is the signature piece of the album in more ways than just the title, as it puts everything into focus. A wonder. Four minutes and 44 seconds of focused brilliance is what we get.

Piazzolla nicely rolls into the concluding portion of the program with two short pieces, the vibrant Argentinian-cum-Modern Classical "Tango Etude No. 5" and then a substantial "Fuga y misterio" which too has earthy folk qualities and augments the duo effectively with bandoneon (Hector Del Curto) and Pedro Giraudo on double bass.

The high artistry of Mika and Richard and their strong sense of what the clarinet-marimba joint sonarity can be makes everything come together in this fascinating and very worthy CD. Anyone who appreciates the two instruments and their legacy will find this fascinating and moving. The music is well worth hearing repeatedly. Kudos and viva the Stoltzmans! Recommended.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Michael Hersch, Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Miranda Cuckson, Jay Campbell

Of the future we of course cannot know but with the vibrant presence of present-day Modernist Michael Hersch there seems bound to be a continuingly advanced presence to come. His latest album Carrion-Miles to Purgatory (New Focus Recordings 229) reminds us how his dedicated energies do not flag.

It is a gathering of some three chamber works-- "...Des Ruckgrat berstend" with Patricia Kopatchinakaja on violin/voice and Jay Campbell on cello, "Music for Violin and Piano" with Miranda Cuckson on violin and Michael Hersch himself on piano, and the 15 movements of the title work "Carrion-Miles to Purgatory" with Cuckson and Campbell.

This is in Michael Hersch's wheelhouse--Expressionist, beyond tonal, post-Serialist, ever inventive and flowing with poignancy.

So "...Das Ruckgrat Berstend" was commissioned by Kopatchinakaja, who wanted something she could simultaneously sing-recite and play on violin. Hersch chose the poetry of Christopher Middleton (1926-2015), a favorite of the composers and previously quoted s reference in earlier scores without setting text to music. The words were translated from English to German at Kopinakaja's request and the vocal part has detailed directions for manner of performance in the score (e.g., a gritty whisper etc.).

From there we move to "Music for Violin and Piano," another shorter piece clocking in like the above at about 11 minutes. It is an excerpt from the live recording of the music the two made in concert in later 2018. It marks a new phase in Cukson's collaboration with the composer, where there is interactive performances. Before that Cuckson has played Hersch's compositions in important instances, e.g. his Violin Concerto, solo works and other things from 2007 to today. The concert in whole consisted of a selection from Hersch's numerous short works under the rubric "Music for Violin and Piano," plus some solo violin music etc.

The fifty minute Carrion-Miles to Purgatory brings the program to its primary focus. The violin-cello duo is of course a somewhat exotic one as far as instrumentation in the repertoire goes. And too Hersch goes about the music in ways that set him apart further. The 15 movements each have loose parallels in poetic texts by Robert Lowell, namely from his Lord Weary's Castle. Here music is not meant as a direct articulation of the poetry meanings, but instead a sort of subliminal reaction to them. The poems kept the composer "company" as he wrote the music, which in the end is a reaction to the loss of a close friend.

I do not have words to put in place of the experience of this music. It is rather ineffable, emotive, and very in line with how Hersch's music has been unfolding. I recommend to you this music as an example of Modernity today. A very rewarding program.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Allan Pettersson. Violin Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 17 (Fragment), Elf Wallin, Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg

The music of Allan Pettersson (1911-80) is something, the composer himself once remarked, like the films of Igmar Bergman. Both capture a very certain mood, not happy exactly, but undeniably aesthetic, transcendant perhaps, reflective in a rather timeless way.

He was trained as a professional violist but gradually was attracted to composition, studied with Karl Berger-Bloomdahl, and then in Paris during 1950-51 with Honegger, Messiaen, Milhaud and Rene Liebowitz, the latter being especially decisive to his development. From that point forward he was a full-time composer.

The CD at hand today covers some of the last works, namely his Violin Concerto No. 2 (1979, revised version) and the existing fragment of his final Symphony No. 17 (BIS 2290 SACD).

The Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra under Christian Lindberg do the performance honors as they have for some excellent recordings of his works (see my reviews of their versions of his Symphonies Nos. 9, 13, 14 on these pages--check search box above). The new one follows in the mode with fine readings. The Violin Concerto has the very nicely turned violin work of Elf Wallin and takes up 53 minutes. The Symphony fragment is quite short at seven or so minutes, yet it is a valuable addition.

The little of the last, the aforementioned 17th Symphony that comes to us here is an Expressionist cry of sharp gloom yet too a monument to Pettersson's undiminished powers as a tone painter.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 is an important work, surely. It comes some many years after his 1949 Concerto for Violin and String Quartet. The first version of No. 2 was finished in 1977, a year after his Symphony No. 13. The composer referred to it as more of a symphony for violin and orchestra more so than a concerto per se. And yes, it soars along very symphonically with an endless melodic thrust led by the very feelingful violin part. Like all mature Pettersson the music is quite chromatic but then not quite atonal. We hear the revised version here, which was the final 1979 take on the music by the composer. The work has a remarkable flow, perhaps a bit more resolved and perhaps even a bit more hopeful at times than one expects from his later output

In the end this is some of the finest examples of the last music of Pettersson, not standing at the edge of a precipice as much as some of the later symphonies (though the Fragment here is quite edgy), and so then the Concerto is a fine contrast to those works.

So I would recommend this one strongly for those just coming to know the composer or too for the confirmed Pettersson listener. Nice.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Jonathan Leshnoff, Symphony No. 4 "Heichalos," Guitar Concerto, Starburst, Jason Vieaux, Nashville Symphony, Roberto Guerrero

As someone sampling a prince's ransom of New Music every month, I must admit there are times when the constant newness can be challenging, in the sense that it can be taxing to keep the ears completely open all the time. But no matter because new voices need to be heard. Today it is Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973), a composer who, in the view of  the New York Times is a "leader of contemporary American lyricism."

A full CD of his orchestral compositions (Naxos 8.559809) comes our way thanks to the resources and considerable interpretive talents of conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony. They tackle two somewhat lengthy and ambitious works and an addendum, namely his "Heichalos" Symphony No. 4 (2017), his Guitar Concerto (2013) and the eight-minute Starburst (2010).

This is tonal music that does not shy away from richly harmonic flights, not especially dissonant most times, but then not entirely expected in their sequential unfolding, either. There is something rather Neo-Romantic going on at times, a kind of passion that has a bit more chutspah than Samuel Barber. It does at times soar to the heights of sorrow that you can hear so movingly in Berg's Violin Concerto. 

Listen to the Second Movement ("Slow") of the Fourth for an excellent showing of this passion and the lyricism alluded to above. It features "The Violins of Hope," instruments once played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

The 4th Symphony appeals moreover  in its minor-moded overall thrust. And in the end we reflect on hope in the face of the most horrifying developments in modern times. As the composer tells us in the liners the symphony is the "representation of the spiritual/ethical embodiment of this Jewish survival." So in the end it is a tribute to music in the face of evil and a stubborn hope (& belief) that good will prevail.

The Guitar Concerto has a minor tonality as well, but is considerably less tragic in its countenance. Guitarist Jason Vieaux handles nicely the solo part and the ravishing adagio of the second movement stands out magically as another excellent lyrical meditation for us to sink into. The outer movements are bracing and a properly contrasting set of creative inventions one most certainly can appreciate as one listens repeatedly. The final movement bristles with thematic energy, with an almost folksy series of motives that sound rather Semitic in a happily memorable way.

The sendoff, Starburst (2010) is a whirl of motion and activity, an orchestrational brightness and a great way to conclude.

I must say there is much to like about this music, but it is not perhaps as much a look ahead as a glance, effectively, at the past, a summing up and reaction to where we have been in music that nonetheless finds original ways to revisit forms by now long established. This however is by no means institutional music but rather a living breathing thing. Each work stands alone as an offering for our appreciation and pleasure. Nicely done!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Liszt, Transcriptions from Operas by Auber and Verdi, Wai Yin Wong, Complete Piano Music Volume 52

You might think that by the time Naxos' Franz Liszt's Complete Piano Music Volume 52 rolls around that the whole thing would be running out of gas? This volume comprises Transcriptions from Operas by Auber and Verdi (Naxos 8.573714). To be frank I must say that after listening to this one a good number of times I find it not uninteresting.

Liszt's fairly extensive collection of piano transcriptions from popular operatic moments corresponded to a public need--a pastime of how the piano figured in the everyday life of musically involved folks, in some ways a sort of quite fancy juke box potentially for hearing the "hits" of the day. So if you went to an opera and you liked the music the transcriptions were a way of being able to commune with the music at home at one's leisure, at least in principal.

Sometimes the level of pianistic difficulty for the works on this volume was not so daunting as to count out a well versed amateur. On the other hand some are up there with Liszt's more virtuoso endeavors and so called out for the master or a talented student or rival to do the music justice. Liszt might have worked some of the more flashy ones into part of a recital or a soiree, or again he also may have had a particular pupil in mind so that she or he,  a more ambitious pianist, might take on one of them to keep growing in technique and to dazzle audiences for themselves.

Yet there are definite attractions here regardless of such considerations and functions. The opening, two rather involved bravura arrangements of a tarantella from Auber's La Muette de Portici, is good fun and a definite dazzle in the form of a theme and progressively elaborate variations.

What this Volume 52 gives us should we be so interested is a kind of primer to Liszt's approach to "de-orchestration" and variational ornamentation, rolling octave "trills" for example, arpeggios, a cascading tremolo and such. It also gives us a handle on what sort of extensions constitute for Liszt a variation or a "fantaisie" on a theme.

These transcriptions are not of operas we generally pay a whole lot of attention to these days, and that explains perhaps in part why this is Volume 52 and not, say Volume 40. So we get transcriptions from Auber's aforementioned La Muette and then Verdi's I Lombardi and Ernani, and finally three transciptions/arrangements from Auber's Le Fiancee.

Young pianist Wai Yin Wong does an elegant job realizing these pieces and the recording sounds quite good from a technical point of view.. This may not be essential listening, surely, but then it does have its attractions, especially of course for those very into the Liszt piano legacy.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Beethoven, String Quartets, Op. 18 nos. 4-6, Eybler Quartet

A little bit of controversy can be a good thing, if the subject matter has "been-there-and-done-that" in some people's minds. So when I heard that the Eybler Quartet kicked up a bit of a fuss about early Beethoven Quartets, of all things, I wanted to see (or rather hear) for myself. The Op. 18 nos. 1-3 Quartets were given the Eybler treatment some time ago.What I said about that volume here on April 8 of last year was seconded by others.  Gramophone called it "defiantly un-glossy but consistently stylish." So I subsequently have had a chance to review the second volume, covering Op. 18 nos. 4-6 (CORO connections 16174). I grabbed at the chance and now I report in with pleasure.

I must say I am pleased with these performances. Very pleased. Often enough earlier incarnations of iconic Beethoven forms (the piano sonatas, string quartets, symphonies) get a kind of teleologic treatment, as if (for example) all the symphonies are prefigurations of the 9th, etc. In other words there can be a tendency to give to the earlier Beethoven the thickly "Romantic Titan Giant" kind of reading. Yet surely there are other ways of hearing, of playing those earlier essays, that it is possible to view the works as special creations, that we can try and see earlier Beethoven as equally attractive but in different ways?

So the Eybler Quartet gives us the 4th through 6th Quartets of the Op. 18 as something much less Teutonic, less blown by cosmic weight, by musically heavy dark matter so to speak. and instead we get something lighter, spritely, more Mercurial. Is it possible that Modern performance practice can breath new life into this period of the Master and his legacy?

This Eybler Quartet installment surely does something of that. Tempos can be quite crisp and invigorating. The tone of the quartet is rather the opposite of the old school Budapest Quartet that I we weaned on years ago. Gone is the buzzingly rich and weighty bee hive of string intensity one heard from the icons of an earlier era. Instead there is a lighter tone that then makes room for a heightened agility that is a definite hallmark of the Eybler Quartet performance here.

There is plenty of feeling, surely, in this reading. But it is not as ponderous. It is ever in motion with an emphasis to a "getting" rather than a sort of staunchly present "already thereness" if you will pardon the loose jargon.

That on-the-way quality of the performances is rather not as I have alluded to a mere pointing towards the mature Beethoven. There is a great deal of brio, for example, but not the burr-rich sonics of Late Romantic style. It is a brio built for speed, not as much for deepness of aural footprint. That is not to say that the quartet sounds at all thin. It is a relative thing.

The liners to this second volume of the Op. 18 works nicely foregrounds a controversy surrounding Beethoven's early music. He was presented with one of the first commercially available metronomes and eagerly began to give metronomic recommendations for movements in the printed music itself. Some musicologists later on justified certain tendencies in performances practices by suggesting that perhaps Beethoven's metronome was not working properly, since they asserted that some of the tempos seemed too fast by a fairly significant rate. But suppose Beethoven meant exactly what he indicated? We hear some of that in this program and it is exhilarating.

The liners speak of another performance habit prevalent since the days of Berlioz and Wagner--the tendency to vary the tempos within movements according to considerations of affect and such. On the opposite end of such things was the earlier viewpoint of Hummel and Spohr, who advocated at least of these earlier works that one more-or-less should stay within a particular tempo upon stating a tactus (rhythmic figure that establishes a tempo) unless specifically directed otherwise by the composer. So in that way the music tends to "rock" and so also sometimes at a stirringly more rapid rate than what we are used to in hearing this music.

All of these factors come into play and provide for us a fresh look at some very familiar music. I must say that the Eybler approach in this volume gives to me a liberating joy. This is masterful music in its own right and the group brings this all out in ways that surely provide for us a new and vital reading of the quartets.

A big bravo to this program! I come away from it feeling like I have seen another part of Beethoven that I have not quite experienced in this way before. It most certainly appeals as a landmark in a post-late-Romantic point of view. Listen to this by all means. The Eybler Quartet is on to something!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Michala Petri, American Recorder Concertos, Music of Roberto Sierra, Steven Stucky, Anthony Newman, Sean Hickey

The recorder saw a peak popularity in the Classical music world with the advent of the Baroque period. The Modern era by contrast has not found the instrument entering the repertoire much at all. But if Michala Petri and the composers represented on American Recorder Concertos (OUR Recordings 8.226912) have their way that could be changing.

Our current phase of Modernity does not have the same attitude about tonality and the lack that the Dodecaphonic composers may have had, not to mention the latter's stylistic need to unveil chromatic non-continuity that in some ways is not inherently idiomatic to a recorder. What that means is that the recorder's ordinarily contiguous diatonicism is no longer necessarily a drawback to the contemporary idiom, provided that composer and player situate the possibilities of the instrument in an adventurous and imaginative use of sequencing and create anew a virtuosity fitting to our times. That means something,

Happily one hears such things on the music of this program. As one gets to know these pieces one does not feel that there has been undue compromise either on the composer's freedom or the player's musicality. The four works we hear in fact sound very much of our time yet too sound very idiomatic to the beauty of the instrument in timbre, intervallic grace, and lyrical earthiness.

Recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has everything to do with the existence of these four works for she specially commissioned them, happily, to redress the general scarcity of recorders on the Modern American compositional scene, especially as full-blown concerted statements.

And so between 2000 and 2016 the four works featured on the program came to being. And now with this release we get to hear all of them in near-ideal conditions with well prepared ensembles and Michala Petri's considerable artistry.

What strikes me about it at first consideration is just how contemporary it all sounds, yet too how each composer has gone forward with each a distinctively original step ahead.

For example harpsichord virtuoso Anthony Newman's "Concerto for recorder, harpsichord and strings" for Michala, Newman on harpsichord and the Nordic String Quartet has a more Neo-Baroque element in play but in no case would you confuse this music with that of the earlier period. It is a delightful romp with some rather incredible recorder pyrotechnics and a Baroque brightness coupled with a Modern freshness.

Roberto Sierra's "Prelude, Habanera and Perpetual Motion" gives Michala and the Tivoli Copenhagen Phil under Alexander Shelley a widely expansive Latin feel as it is a refiguring of a work Sierra originally scored for recorder and guitar. We feel the presence of the initial instrumentation yet also a pronounced color palette coming out of the new timbral possibilities.

Steven Stucky's "Etudes," a concerto for recorder and orchestra, started this series of works in 2000 and grounds our sensibilities in a series of interplays between Michala and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (under Lan Shui) that show a masterful compositional hand and help spell out for us a new sensibility for the recorder in our contemporary world.

Finally we have at nearly 30 minutes the longest and perhaps most ambitious of the four works in Sean Hickey's "A Pacifying Weapon" for recorder, winds, brass, percussion and harp, this time Michala Petri joining forces with the eminently capable Royal Danish Academy of Music Concert Band under Jean Thorel. It is a tour de force with twistingly, fiendishly difficult recorder heroics
against a firebranded windband backdrop contrasted by meditatively ponderous reflective moments.

The promise of the recorder concerto for today has in this way presented itself to us and we find in all ways a virtuoso heroism coupled by a discerning contemporary stance on what constitutes a concerto. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is the unforced outflowing of this music as a natural give-and-take between the instrument, its widened capabilities in the hands of a master performer and the considerable forward leaning imaginations of the four composers and their memorable art on display for us in this program.

I am happy to recommend this album for anyone interested in the instrument and so also in the contemporary concerto as it is evolving in our times. Kudos to all involved.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Edition Musikfabrik 15, STURM, Steffen Schleiermacher, Kaija Saariano, Michael Wertmuller

The Wergo label continues to bring us releases of some most interesting new music with High Modernist boldness and broad relief. The latest stands out. It reminds us that forward thinking is by no means solely a product of some past that is behind us. Today we have Edition Musikfabrik 15, which is called STURM (Wergo 6868 2). And true-to-form it gusts directly through our musical consciousnesses and sweeps away any old accretions decisively.

Three contrasting works are given to us on the program. Stefen Schleiermacher's Das Tosen des Staunenden Echos begins things with a flourish. Then comes Kaija Saariano's absorbing The Tempest Songbook and the freely jazzed chamber work Antagonisme Controle by Michael Wertmuller.

The performances leave nothing to be desired. Ensemble Musikfabrik under conductors Jean Deroyer,  Emilio Pomarico and Christian Eggen, respectively, form a very good tandem for the program.

Schleiermacher's Das Tosen des Staunenden Echos combines caustically exciting piano insistencies with some breathtaking ensemble forays for a fantastic whirlwind of sound.

The Tempest Songbook features vocalists Olivia Vermeulen and Peter Schone with the Ensemble for a typically stunning Saariaho essay in color and substance.

Free Jazz dynamo tenor sax-soprano-clarinetist Peter Brotzmann unleashes a torrent of energy with his co-soloists Dick Rorhbrust and Marino Plinkas. All team up beautifully with the Ensemble for one of the most exhilaratingly effective Free Improv-New Music meldings of the last decade.

The program in the end comes through with a nicely freshening breeze of the Contemporary chamber orchestra world at its very best. Ensemble Musikfabrik show themselves to be one of the most engaging and accomplished chamber ensembles active today.

My highest recommendations for this one if you seek the very new, the state-of-the-art on the scene right now. Bravo!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo (1915 Original Version), El retable de Maese Pedro, Fernandez, Garcia, Zetland, Garza, Perspectives Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordonez

Anyone who finds the "Spanish tinge" to their liking and appreciates how that can combine in a kind of very lyrical Modernism would take readily to a new performance of El Amor Brujo (1915 Original Version) and El retablo de Maese Pedro (Naxos 8.573890) by some excellent vocalists and the Perspectives Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez.

These are two by the wonderful composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), two of his very best. You might well know some sections of El amor brujo that are often enough performed, especially the "Ritual Fire Dance," in its orchestral excerpt. But the full version of El amor brujo, that is so much more, and it is especially nice to hear it in this original version from 1915. The slightly later El retablo de Maese Pedro (1923) is not heard nearly as often as it deserves as well. Put the two together with these performances and we have something.

If there ever was a Spanish Stravinsky, without being some obvious borrow, it is in de Falla, in these works as much as anywhere? I do not suppose it is necessary to pick up on that to love the music, and it is more in a Petrushka-meets-L'Histoire than the Rites-meets-Renard? It is all music of the highest Neo-Classical and Modern folkishness at any rate.

What makes this particular coupling, these particular performances compelling is the presence of the 1915 version of Brujo and the painstakingly vibrant folk quality of the reading of both scores. The Perspectives Ensemble sounds just right under conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez and Music Director-Flautist Sato Moughalian. Cantaora Esperanza Fernandez is fabulously earthy and folksy in Brujo, as good as one might possibly imagine. But then soprano Jennifer Zetlan, baritone Alfredo Garcia, and tenor Jorge Garza are excellent as well in Pedro.

Combine all this with the nice Naxos price and that spells G-O-O-D  D-E-A-L! I would not hesitate. It is a great listen.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Maurice Ravel, Complete Works for Solo Piano, Hakon Austbo

If you are reading this I suspect you already know that Ravel's Complete Works for Solo Piano is one of the extraordinary treasures of the Twentieth Century. In the hands of pianist Hakon Austbo (SIMAX Classics PSC 1366 2-CDs) vibrant new life gets a fresh breath into things, which matters a great deal for those who have heard a good many versions of this music. But then too anyone who is a novice would gain an excellent introduction with this as well.

It has struck me for a long while how the music itself is as a whole nearly infinitely malleable and so subject to a pretty broad spectrum of readings. My first set of Ravel piano was on three LPs. It was remarkably straightforward though I had no idea if it was or not. My mother was so enthralled by it all that she played the records a nearly infinite number of times. So it is in her honor today that I return to this wonderful music. It is a supreme test of the music's excellence that she could have played the music so many times in my presence and yet I still retain a great love for it all.

This Hakon Austbo reading has superlative interpretive acumen oozing from its musical pores, if you will pardon my wordy exuberance. It may always feel like spring with this music, but in the hands of Hakon's it is a most lovely spring morning and all is right with the world.

Hakon with the opening "Gaspard de la Nuit" shows us part of what he is about. By sometimes resorting to a contemplative rubato he brings ever more to us the Modernist abstract element at play. Then too always Ravel is the supreme colorist in his piano music and Austbo lets us feel it with a splash and dash of the utmost poetic taste I suppose you might say?

The technique is wholly there. Yet it never calls attention to itself so much as it is harnessed, it is used to coax the maximum of poetry from the keys. The "Miroirs" gets a kind of crystalline prismatic chiming such as we who already know the beauty of the work especially appreciate. And for something that demands a sort of regularly paced reading, the "Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte" shimmers and shines within its rhythmic "case" in ravishing ways.

I must say there is a consistent sensitivity of touch and a flourish of artful phrasing throughout the whole of this program, from the "Sonatine" and its expressive thrust to the deeply flowing "Le Tombeau de Couperin." This is one of the finest Ravel sets I have yet to hear and I do very much recommend it as a supplement, a ready addition of excellence in readings for those who have heard a great deal of the Ravel interpretive wash over the years. Or for that matter it is a fine start for those that know next to nothing about these things. Either way you are getting some wonderful piano mastery in a very well produced audio presentation.

I suggest you check this one out if you find yourself attracted to the idea of it all! I doubt you'll be disappointed. I am myself very glad to have this on hand to return to.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Morton Feldman, For Bunita Marcus, Aki Takahashi, Piano

Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was a composer like no other before or since. He quietly made his way through the musical stratosphere in the USA beginning in the '50s and went through several productive phases. The very last one is especially dramatic, featuring sprawling works that repeat and vary in the most contemplative ways, with no formulaic or mechanical unfoldings, rather with inspired intuitions, ever.

The 1985 work for piano, For Bunita Marcus (Mode 314) brings to us 75 minutes of concentrated meditations, as played here by pianist Aki Takahashi. One would expect a masterful performance because of Aki's involvement historically with the Feldman oeuvre. And she in fact was the very pianist who introduced the work to the world in the premier. Importantly after she premiered Triadic Memories Feldman was so moved by the performance that thereafter every piano work he composed was with her in mind. This corresponded with the final Feldman compositional burst where each work was tailored to a particular performer or set of performers, and so the music was conceived as following a kind of logic coming out of the composer's envisioning the performance as the performer would see fit to accomplish it.

The 96/24-bit "hi-resolution" recording made in 2007 sounds every bit as good as you would hope and the performance has the ever-consistent concentration and even-handedness that allows the music to roll off of the recording like an endless carpet, with the patterning there to experience and a kind of smoothness of delivery so that you sense no abrupt changes as you listen. All melds together as one single processual whole as the later Feldman approach demands.

As James Pritchard so aptly states in this album's liner notes, "like all late Feldman works [for Bunita Marcus] is an adventure that takes a relatively long time to play out, but is remarkably lacking in heaviness." We may expect an epic, he goes on, "but what we get is the present moment, in all its beauty, over and over again."  It is all about the facinating chance for the listener to follow the next and then the next next. That in Pritchard's view constitutes the beautiful unrolling of the work. Indeed to me that unpredictability and always "to handedness" or ever-potentially ever makes later Feldman a kind of endless roadshow of Zen "suchness."

It is music to enter into with a promise of self-transformation. If you take to the music you hear all music a little differently afterwards. Or at least that is a real possibility. Aki gives us the optimum performance. Huge kudos to her and Mode records for bringing this to us. Very recommended.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Johann Sebastian Bach, Magna Sequentia I, Sonia Rubinsky

The Bach album up for review has the significant subtitle A Grand Suite of Dances Compiled and Performed by Sonia Rubinsky, Piano. That tells us much about the main title, Magna Sequentia I (Naxos 8.574026). The title refers to this special arrangement of 19 mostly dance segments in a sequence selected by pianist Rubinsky in an interconnected way, with a sequential logic that makes of them a rather vast suite. They are selected especially from his French Suites and Partitas.

And a fine thing that is. Piano renditions of Bach keyboard (harpsichord) music have a certain Modern tang to them by virtue of the nature of the pianoforte sounding naturally more contemporary than a harpsichord,  of course. Ever since Glenn Gould's wondrous piano Bach we are prepared to bring to the hearing of such excursions a sense of adventure. Sonia Rubinsky does not disappoint. She can take things at a somewhat rapid clip like Gould sometimes did, and then we are wow-ed by some dexterous feats of velocity but like Gould always with musicality, never in some kind of obvious horse-race of fingers.

The back cover blurb to the album suggests more, indeed a good deal more than a simple flurry of the digits. It tells us to bear in mind "her historically informed performance," indeed to consider how "Magna Sequentia I offers fresh insights into Bach performance on a modern grand piano."  We should consider that each dance in a suite, according to the music theorist of the time Mattheson (so the liners tell us), was meant to have a particular affect, so a Gavotte evoked "joy," a Sarabande was "serious" and sometimes even "sad," etc.

Sonia picks each movement in sequence for such considerations, but also for the tonal logic that arises out of the opening strains of the Bach Partita No. 4. She also takes the trouble to ensure that there are a few of each dance movement possibility, for affect and also to give the overall program the maximum of diverse variety as Bach conceived of it. She alternates the ornate French style with the straightforward and at times virtuoso Italian style and then again intersperses a few centerpieces of German fugal approaches for dramatic weight. So she seeks to evoke a sort of cornucopia of shades of musical meaning as Bach himself intended in his suites the way he himself ordered them.

All this matters because in the end the pleasure of hearing the sequence unfold as it does relates to what Ms. Rubinsky has considered in working out the selection and order. So all that makes perfect and happy sense. The fine pianism itself in the end brings the rest of the experience together for us and puts us in a mood of satisfaction, fulfillment, Bach bliss if you are anything like me. Of the extant 19 Bach suites for keyboard, Sonia has chosen well in this first volume of her Magna Sequentia.

Very gladly recommended. This is the Bach Suite connection you might crave. If you do, here it is in a fine performance at a good price! Bravo! The reordering for old-salt listeners freshens things considerably too. Either way this is a genuine pleasure and an adventure for anyone who is ready and willing.

Penderecki Szymanowski Panufnik String Quartets, Atma Quartet

Combine an excellent string quartet with three neglected gems in the Modern Polish repertoire and you really have something. That is what is going on with the auspicious debut of the Atma Quartet and their Penderecki Szymanowski Panufnik String Quartets (Accord ACD 252-2). We hear three very individual works brought to our senses with care, skill and devotion for a very happy result.

We may not think especially of these three composers in terms of the string quartet configuration, and that perhaps accounts for the surprise I at least felt once I recognized in hearing the high musical offerings this program represents. With Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) we hear his 1927 String Quartet No. 2 Op. 56, for Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) we get his String Quartet No. 3 "Paper Cuts." Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) chimes in appropriately with the worthwhile 2008 String Quartet No. 3 "Leaves of an Unwritten Diary."

There is no mistaking the dramatic Modern character and Polish atmospherics of each of these works. The Atma Quartet themselves put it nicely in the liners-- "It is the courage with which bold, compositional concepts are implemented on the one hand, and the enthralling vitality of Polish folklore that lies at the core of our cultural heritage on the other." So indeed do we experience a happy conjoining of the local with the temporally advanced, the new times and their expression combined with deep folkways.

There are strikingly intimate, introspective elements at play throughout as well as a highly engaging extroverted dash to be heard in ways any student of our times might appreciate. Poetic expression and a wealth of string-sounding techniques are key factors at play throughout. The Atma Quartet bring out the beautifully conceived articulation of each movement with a sureness and a telling sympathy that affords us pause, then delight and satisfaction.

Clearly the Atma Quartet give notice on their debut album. The works are essential listening and the quartet members all excel as state-of-the-art practitioners, masters of color and expression. Molto bravo!