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Friday, September 13, 2019

David Haney, Birth of a City, For String Quartet and Improvising Quartet

David Haney is a well respected avant improv pianist and composer and succeeded Bob Rusch as the owner-editor of Cadence Magazine. I have appreciated his free-wheeling improvisational forays for a long while by now, but I have not had the pleasure to hear his ambitious compositional outlooks until this new release. But I am quite glad I have! Birth of A City for String Quartet and Improvising Quartet (Big Round) gets my attention and keeps it..

This is music that defies expectations--in the sense that its pronounced "Third Stream" essence comes out in decidedly more contemplative than explosive ways. I would not have precisely expected such a thing as a cosmic explosion, certainly, but the music comes through less as a combustion and more as a concentratedly individual, as implied form in freedom,  like spontaneous sparkling glass beads on endless strings. Two sets I suppose you could say? That is two for the two works here--"Birth of A City" in eight parts, "Variations on a Theme" in five parts, the latter with some of the more overtly Jazz-oriented thematics at times.

The artists are exceptional players all and expectations have some role for what I know of them--that they can be quite extroverted but that isn't what they are called upon to do here. Instead they fall aptly into a special kind of way to sound that Haney sets out in the scores.

The String Quartet consists of players well known for improvising as well as interpreting written form--among other things. So there is Jason Kao Hwang on violin, Melanie Dyer on viola, Adam Lane on bass and Thomas Ulrich on cello.

The "Improvising Quartet" is an interesting and unusual mix of jazz trombone titans Julian Priester and Steve Swell as pitted against the percussion of Dave Storrs and the traps of drum legend Bernard Purdie.

The beads of light on two strings I think of when listening to this program come to us with exacting written parts juxtaposed with a good deal of improvisational freedom. It all comes across as a kind of virtual set of inaudible pedal points that frame the ever interweaving key centered horizontal poignancy and vertically subtle heft.

It is music that quietly but concentrically unwinds spell-full particularities that at first blush seem unassuming but then increasingly stand out in well wrought and eventually enthralling ways.

Kudos to Maestro Haney and company on this one. Do not expect so much "x" or "y," for this is "z" and all the better for us! Heartily recommended for all who seek to explore the new music improv nexus today.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Unheard-of//Dialogues, Unheard-of//Ensemble

New chamber music within the Avant-and-Beyond Modern realm is what today's CD is all about. The Unheard-of//Ensemble, a quartet, gives us eight works on their album Unheard-of//Dialogues (self-released). We hear Ford Fourqurean on clarinet, Matheus Sardinha Garcia Souza on violin, So Sugiyama on cello and Daniel Anastasio on piano. They blend together wonderfully and have each an individual flexibility and virtuosity.

The eight works keep the "anything goes" motto alive and meaningful. There is a fair deal of variety in the sub-style sets to be heard. "Maple" by Christopher Stark sets the pace with long-tone blends, shruti-like bends, and a general contemplative mood. Then Minimal-like noteful buoyancy contrasts further distinguish this work as rather vibrantly lively.

"Family Picnic 2008" (Erin Rogers) uses spoken motifs mixed seamlessly with New Music instrumental contrapuntal klangfarben--and some interestingly variegated spoken-sung-played events, each having a sectional impact I guess you could say. It is about large banks!

"Coalescence Cascade" (Michael Lanci) has a rather beautiful, radical tonality kind of primality that appeals, and it too contrasts with thematically more complex elements.

"Procession-process: peace" by Reiko Futing combines Radical and Expressive Tonality with New Music and Post-Mod entrances and exits for a fascinating hybrid. There is something also in the use of aural space here,  a kind of Eastern quality?

"Hum Phenomena" by Tonia Ko is nicely open with a classic New Music kind of eloquence.

Ben Loory's "The Well" is a magical-reality sort of short story recitation that is interesting enough but perhaps gives us a disruption from the musical sublimities of before and after when one has already heard it numerous times. Nonetheless it is easy enough to skip if one no longer needs to experience it again.

Nathan Hudson's "music for falling/flying" is Tonal-lyrical-primal-old/new-synthetic and partakes of a rhapsodical quality in new ways that keep one's attention centered on it all.

Nikitias Demos' "Eronflash" ends the program on a very alive Neo-Classical sort of mode. The music has that labyrinthine stop-go punctuality that marks Stravinsky at his best in this mode, only this is also unmistakably original and not really derivative. So it's a good ending for a good program.

And after digesting this a number of times I must say I am impressed with Unheard-of's highly enthusiastic and infectious readings of these works, some definite indications of part of where we are today--both Avant and Tonal. Molto bravo!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Great Classic Film Music, Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra, Iain Sutherland

Like most everyone I grew up watching a lot of movies and absorbing the movie soundtracks. Because I was part of the first TV generation I was exposed to a lot more old movies (on TV) than might have been the case for the radio-phonograph folks coming up somewhat earlier. Classical music has always had a huge influence on the music of the most classic scores of course and there is a rather handy summing up of such things on a CD that has come out recently, namely Great Classic Film Music (SOMNI Recordings Ariadne 5006), as performed (mostly live) by the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra (England) conducted by Iain Sutherland--from recordings made between 1983 and 1986.

The selection covers the icons of the last century, soundtrack-wise, and a few that one might not be as familiar with, at ;least here in the States. So there are some of John Williams' Star Wars I musical themes and his Main Title music from E.T. (I.e.,  Williams takes on Holst), Max Steiner's schlocky classic "Tara's Theme" from Gone with the Wind (as a kid I knew it as the theme for the "Million Dollar Movie" TV feature every night on indie NYC TV), and a bunch of others, most of which I'll mention as we go along.

From the beginning of the "talkie" era (and at times for the more elaborate silent film presentations) the symphony orchestra was more or less a must for any soundtrack that wanted to aspire to blockbuster status. The orchestra represented "class," "ideal expression of narrative elements" and perhaps above all was considered universally the fullest means to express emotional content that we then knew musically. We may still feel the same way--but not all ages or current genres however.

To fit the soundtracks with the musical scene we need to remember that mainstream "everyman" classical popularity was by then firmly in the hands of the most popular Romantics--so Tchaikovsky for example was a kind of bellwether, but others too of course. And the soundtrack composers coming out of Europe into Hollywood or at any rate with Euro-centric training if not residence, they were fully steeped as orchestral composers in the Beethoven-and-after extravaganza style possibilities. And so then the stock in trade necessarily was Romantic--for better or worse. Korngold was one of the more brilliant refugees from Europe in WWII and his music was always much more than stock Romantic tropes--so you can hear that in the March from the Adventures of Robin Hood and the Prelude from Escape Me Never.

The romance of the Romantic comes to the fore especially in "Tara's Theme" and the Love Theme from Love Story. These are themes virtually everyone has known and are admittedly some of the very more memorable items from a huge production of soundtrack footage over the years.

One must note that something like Jerome Moross's Prelude from The Big Country gives us something else--a post-Copland Americana that is attractive and evocative and very well suited to the subject matter of the film. So too William Walton's various spots sound like him and not otherwise, as one might say too about Khachaturian. An innovatively rousing Prokofiev on his "Battle on the Ice" from Alexander Nevsky breaks all molds, though this performance is a little hectic compared to some classic ones I am used to hearing.

Beyond that among other things there is decent arrangement by the conductor Sutherland of Williams' Close Encounters that well represents the ground of blockbuster Scifi soundtrack trends from the close of the period the recording was made.

Movie buffs will find this nice to have and hear. Can we still respond to "Tara's Theme" the way my parents might have? Probably not but no anthology of popular film scoring would be complete without it. It all raises the issue too of how a period expects or likes to hear some things that in other ages are not assumed or perhaps even completely understood.

If music from more atmospheric soundtracks like Jaws and Psycho are missing, the emphasis on the lyric Romantic would make them seem a little jarring I suppose, given the implied premise that the program satisfies audiences looking for the tuneful, for melodic sublimity?

The performances are quite serviceable and the selections are well paced. It might not be something I would be looking out for right now if I was not reviewing it  but then it is a reliably good collection if you have or think you have the need for it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Frank Merrick, Piano (1886-1981) with Henry Holst, Violin (1899-1991), Selected Best from '60s LPs

As I have said before one thing good about doing these reviews is that I end up hearing and appreciating music I otherwise would not have known about or had the chance to experience. One such offering is a four-CD set giving us "A selection of the best performances transferred from the 'Frank Herrick Society' and the 'Rare Recorded Edition' LPs" of the 1960s by pianist Franck Herrick (1886-1981) with Henry Holst on violin (1899-1991) (Nimbus/Grand Piano 4-CDs NI 8826).

Herrick may well be of legendary status in these days we live, at least over  in England. Regardless I have not before heard him, or even of him, but I am very glad to hear these excellent performances now. Wiki talks of his life and career and you might want to go there to find out more. They note that he won the Columbia Gramophone contest to write the final two movements of the Schubert "Unfinished Symphony," that in 1926. The recording of it is quite rare.

Beyond that as performer and teacher he was a pivotal figure in England. What counts for us right this moment are these vintage recordings and they are very fine. He and violinist Henry Holst mesh wonderfully well and give us sparkling and interestingly Apollonian readings of works in the lyrically Tonal and Neo-Classical Modernist realm, a rather striking, refreshing selection to me.

The opening disk and a third centers on Arnold Bax (1883-1953) and alerts us to how fascinating and moving Bax's violin-piano works are--and no less how good they sound in the Merrick-Holst readings at hand. Virtually any Anglophile would find all of it a treasure. But then any student of the 20th Century should find it absorbing too. (And that holds true of all of this music.) Bax may have fallen into eclipse even as these long unavailable '60s records were being made, and that makes them all the more remarkable I suppose because the artists clearly love the bittersweet music and make it their own, make it seem timeless. As you listen to the intricately lyrical music you feel that these fit well into the "Second English Renaissance" of the early 20th century, with Bax as a composer fully deserving to stand alongside Vaughan-Williams, Holst, Walton, etc., as a home-grown original. So the performances of his "Legend," "Ballad," and Violin Sonatas 1-3, covering the fruitful period of 1915-1927.

From there we have somewhat familiar music along with exotically lesser-known works. Nothing is uninteresting and all are played with poise and great sympathy. These are singular performance events, every one. So we get nicely burnished readings of Delius' Violin Sonata No. 2, the Sibelius Sonata in E major, op. 80, then some contrapuntal and/or expressive niceties from  Max Reger (Sonata No. 5 from 1905 and "Suite in Olden Style" from 1906). Finally among the known commodities we get the somewhat under-appreciated "Cinq Melodies" of 1920 from a fairly young Prokofiev. All of these flourish in some fine expressions.

And then there are some very interesting and obscure (to me) works by Edward Isaacs (1881-1953), Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) and two sonatas by Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-1987). Each piece is a worthy addition to the literature and surely worth hearing.

The sound is quite decent for old LPs, the performances excellent, the program an adventure. And the price is reasonable. So take a listen by all means.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Dvorak, Elgar, Schumann, Cello Concertos, Strauss, Don Quixote, Kim Cook, St. Petersburg State Symphony, Brohuslav Martinu Philharmonic

Some CD programs thrive in part because they include a good choice of repertoire that plays off of one another well to illuminate a period and do it insightfully. That is the case with cellist Kim Cook's two-CD set of middle-to-late Romantic period concerted works for cello and orchestra. On it we get a nice balance between the Cello Concertos of Dvorak, Elgar and Schumann and then Don Quixote by Richard Strauss (MSR Classics 1637), as played nicely by the St. Petersburg State Symphony or the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic under conductors Arkady Shreinlucht or Gerardo Edelstein.

Kim Cook come across as both Apollonian and Dionysian in equal measure. She is Romantically emotive without undue over-statement and she articulates the parts with a kind of stately steadfastness that seems quite convincing to me. And to complete the aural picture the orchestra readings seem equally balanced and clearly articulated.

The Elgar work (1919) shines forth to me as perhaps the most outstanding of the four readings. Elgar was in the later stages of his artistry when he wrote it  and this work has a touching sort of bittersweet elegance that Cook and the St. Petersburg Orchestra under Shreinlucht play out for us with thoughtfully painted pastels and shades of grey. There are moments that seem almost lighthearted, notably the Allegro Molto of the Second Movement but there is too the moving Adagio of the following movement which has a wistful remembrance, a Proustian-Madeleine sort of looking backward in the present that in the performers' hands is quite touching. The march elements of the final movement give us a feeling of time past and passing and all seems quite well in the end, as it no doubt is, comparatively speaking.

The Strauss Don Quixote was apparently (as the liners note) meant to offer a kind of comic comeback to the more dramatic-serious autobigraphical Straussian Ein Heldenleben--and some of the playfulness is nicely on display in this version. Frankly this Strauss work has for whatever reason failed to hit a nerve with me over the years but I must say this version does seem more convincing to me than perhaps some others that I regularly listen to in my collection. If one is to make a case for the brilliance of Strauss's pictoral musical prose in this work it is clear one can hear it quite well in this version.

The xecond disk has the rather classical coupling of the Dvorak and Schumann concertos, which is how I first heard them (together) when I found a Rostropovich LP in my youth and reveled in it. The Schumann sounds appropriately heroic in Ms. Cook's hands, the Dvorak expressively regal. There are other versions of course and that is not to say that these are not worth hearing and appreciating. They are. Yet so the full program is as well and gives us a nice snapshot of the cello sonata repertoire of the pre-Modern period.

Kim Cook's cello rings out without a lot of undue clamor. It is sweet without being saccharine, and there is a musically projective force that seems right for the many various emotive and tonal moods contain in the program. And in the end it all makes these four works seem more of our time perhaps than some of the older recordings I have been used to hearing. Ms. Cook goes her own way in musically pleasing ways.

I recommend this one happily, especially for those who have gaps in the cello repertoire that this set of readings fills quite nicely. And this version of Elgar should be heard by anyone with an interest in such things because it is quite fine indeed. Bravo, then!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Anton Dvorak, Locale, "American" Quartet, Piano Quintet in A Major, The Alexander String Quartet, Joyce Yang, Piano

Classical music lovers in the USA have long cherished Anton Dvorak's New World Symphony as the lucid and lyrical tribute to that seemingly new morning in a new place. Native Americans might have gotten a different symphony perhaps but they were not at that point likely to listen to much symphonic fare of course.

All of us in general who explore the Classical repertoire have heard and enjoyed more of Dvorak. Two works`in the chamber realm are especially worth your time certainly, that is the "American" Quartet and the Piano Quintet in A Major, which happily it so happens there is a new recording out by the Alexander String Quartet and Joyce Yang at the piano for the latter work (Foghorn Classics FCL 2020).

The "American" Quartet as it rather rapidly came to be known was written in the summer of 1893 while the composer was staying in Spillville, Iowa, in the midst of his three-year stay as the director of the National Conservatory in New York. The music does not make direct use of American national themes but instead writes music that is his own classicization of the spirit of such music. It quickly caught on in the States on its Boston premier in January of 1894 and has been continually and deservedly appreciated since that time.

The Piano Quintet in A Major, Opus 81 was written somewhat earlier in the summer and fall of 1887, initially in the Czech countryside at Dvorak's summer home. As the fine liners to the release note, the work makes an excellent synthesis between Czech folk-like elements and latter classical Post-Brahmsian forms. It is a sheer delight to hear as is the Quartet.

The Alexander String Quartet and Joyce Yang give us spirited and compassionate readings of these works that are close to ideal. If there are no shocking reinterpretations there are also no disappointments whatsoever. It is a golden program played with the finest care for a broad sweep and finely turned detail. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Peter Racine Fricker, Organ Works, Tom Winpenny

When it is a matter of organ music and Modernism of course Messiaen has been by far the most influential and inspiring figure. He continues to captivate as virtually no one else in our times.

There is the matter however of English composer Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990), whose Organ Music (Toccata Classics 0518), as played by formidable organ Modernist Tom Winpenny, gives us an alternative, convincing look at Classical-Modernist possibilities, a rigorously and thoroughgoing imaginative view of what can be said in tone.

He was in the '50s and early '60s a celebrated Modernist in English circles but then went somewhat out-of-fashion with the rise of more avant styles, which was compounded by Frick leaving Europe to accept a teaching position at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The move was to define in many ways the course of his later life. It allowed him to keep on but effectively kept him out of the European limelight.

This first-ever recorded compilation of his organ works is revelatory in its portrayal of the brilliant contrapuntalist, dissonant Modernist and dramatic-melodic organ dynamist. Some eight works and one five-piece grouping grace the program. All save the short "Pastorale" are in First Recordings, which is saying a great deal, as we are talking about some 75 minutes of music.

Significantly all but one of these works were written between 1965 and 1985, when he was a resident in the USA. If nothing else it marks the bulk of his organ music as later output, comparatively speaking, if this selection is any indication.

One thing to be said for the whole of this, Fricker tellingly conveys an intensive brilliance of musicality that is always filled with significant form, from the contemplative to the bitingly severe.

This program is magnificently performed by Winpenny and should be of great interest to any follower of English 20th-century composers, or indeed of the Modern organ. The musical content should intrigue anyone who has serious concern for developments in our contemporary musical worlds. A landmark recording, this is.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Midwest Chamber Ensemble, Vieux Amis-Nouveaux Costumes (Old Friends in New Costumes), Settings of Debussy and Faure Songs and Other Works by Philip Lasser, Steve Lewis, Director

The Midwest Chamber Ensemble presents Vieux Amis-Nouveaux Costumes (Old Friends in New Costumes) (BRC Audio Productions). As the subtitle states these are "A Setting of Debussy and Faure Songs for Voice and Chamber Ensemble by Philip Lasser" and then several Lasser (b.1953)  works of his own.

The star of most of the proceedings is soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson, who has a most engaging and delightful voice that suites this music quite well indeed. The Midwestern Chamber Ensemble, conducted in the fully instrumented works by Director Steve Lewis, rather clearly are in their element with this repertoire. The end result is a kind of conjoining magic of composition and performance, a real match of affinity.

The arrangements of the Debussy and Faure songs ("Apparition" and "Mandoline," respectively) are nothing less than exquisite, with lyrical chamber group parts that greatly enhance the songs and give us something considerable to hear and appreciate.The six Lasser songs in addition to the one apiece from the Debussy and Faure realms--taken all together there is strong lyrical Impressionistic-Modern fare to be heard and it all works marvelously well.

The second half of the program presents us with several Lasser instrumental works that provide a lyrical haunting of their own in a decidedly French lyrical manner, whether it is a matter of "The Jewely Box" for violin (Ho Man Lee) and piano (Jessica Koebbe), the Sonata for Cello (Ernan Chalshotori) and piano (Charles Dickinson) and the final, beautifully lyric "Ballade" for flute (Virginia Q. Backman) and strings.

It is all a rather ravishing program certainly and the performances are excellent. If you respond well to modern French lyricism this is no doubt going to make you happy, I very much think. Listen and enjoy.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Partch, Sonata Dementia, Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3

The figure of Harry Partch (1901-1974) on the American New Music landscape is a singular and totally original one. A dedicated iconoclast of absolute brilliance, where he and his music are concerned  it seems the more I hear of it, the more I feel I am in a presence like no other. We all get a chance to hear new versions and First Recordings of some chamber gems that point us ever forward. This on The Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3, otherwise listed as its primary title Sonata Dementia (Bridge 9525). And though we will always live in a kind of astonishment about his musical instrument inventing and his expansion of tone as we know it this volume reminds us that there is much more involved as well, a kind of world outlook that marks him in the most unique way. And that can become clear when we open up to some of the smaller ensemble works and their fine performance on this release.

With the exception of the two bonus tracks (to be discussed shortly) the entire endeavor is a love labor of the "Grammy Winning ensemble" PARTCH, who most certainly seem born to the music, and as we know with Partch in the past, nothing less will do, since the performers really must "live" the Partch spirit and make it ring out with the quirky kind of authenticity of the American "folk persona" that was so much a part of Partch's world and work.

First up is "Ulysseys at  the Edge of the World" (1962), which combines trumpet, baritone sax and more "conventionally" Partchian instruments and was written for jazz trumpet master Chet Baker. It has consequently a slightly more jazzy sonance than usual. It sounds wonderful in the new recording.

The "Twelve Intrusions" (1950) too gives us a lot to contemplate, miniature gems that embody the mystery and folk rootsy-ness of Partch at his finest. The vocal parts have been realized with just the sort of mischievous prankster yet deadly dramatic-serious demeanor that Partch himself gave to the parts and as he himself performed them often enough.

"Windsong" (1958) thrives here as the first recording of the original version.

The penultimate bonus track is a short Edison Cylinder of a Native American song that Partch was called upon to transcribe for the Southwest Museum. He paraphrases it in the "Cloud Chamber Music" section of "Intrusion."

Finally in the Partch Ensemble section of the program "Sonata Dementia" (1950) in a First Recording gives us music that I for one am extremely grateful to have now. It is contained in three dramatic movements that any Partch lover will no doubt be glad to savor.

The acetates of the Partch's Eastman lecture-performance of the original adapted guitar and vocal version of "Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers' Inscriptions" (1941) is a delight and a revelation. His adapted guitar performance is an ear-opener and a fine thing on its own!

Nothing perhaps is quite as incredible as the Columbia recording of his epic Delusion of the Fury, which everyone surely should hear if not own. On the other hand this new volume gives you an excellent introduction to the more intimate chamber Partch. For the newcomer or the old friend, this album will jump out at you in ways nothing else quite can.

Highly recommended. A milestone recording.