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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Edward Cowie, Clarinet Concerto No. 2, Concerto for Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Howard Williams, Alan Hacker

It falls upon me as a reviewer to listen to a lot of music by composers not all that well known at present.The ones that interest me tend to get covered, naturally. Today is another good example. Edward Cowie (b. 1943) brings to us some important works on a recent CD.

The program begins with Clarinet Concerto No. 2 (1979-80) featuring Alan Hacker sounding wonderful on the solo instrument, and then the Concerto for Orchestra (1981-82) (Metier MSV 92108). The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Howard Williams do the performance honors, and they sound very convincing in their role. That in part comes out of the composer's timely receipt of the 1984 Grenada Composer-Conductor Award which involved extensive access to the orchestra and a finely gauged experiencing of hearing in depth how a full-throated orchestra could shade sounds. The results can be heard in this recording made some 30 years ago and now finally commercially released as a CD for us to appreciate.

Cowie studied with Alexander Goehr. The "Concerto for Orchestra" is dedicated to him. The two works on the program find Cowie in a lucid Modernist Dodecaphonic mode.  This 1979-82 period was mainstream to the 12 tone orchestral work. Yet he does not just feed us generic things, not at all. Both works are marked by an acute sense of sonarity and a sure orchestrational ability. And so too the composer's involvement with thinking about the movement of bodies of water in nature is an animating factor, partly as a result of his involvement with and appreciation of sailing at the time.  The "flow" of the music in important ways has a natural quality of such forces in the world and nicely so.

Cowie's "Clarinet Concerto No. 2" turns out to be up there among the handful of really worthy such works from the later 20th century. The continuous orchestral-solo interplay makes for excellent dramatic dialog and a superior harmonic-melodic advancement and expressive daring.

The "Concerto for Orchestra" stands out for its continuous sectional lucidity, its ultra-Modern inventive expression and extraordinary group interplay.

Bravo to all concerned!

Monday, July 6, 2020

William Walton & Constant Lambert, Facades, James Geer, Andrew West, Ronald Woodley

An unexpected twist in repertoire, interesting composer pairings--those sorts of things can be refreshing and worthwhile. Today we have such a case--a disk of piano music and song by the likes of William Walton (1902-83) and Constant Lambert (1905-51) on the recent Facades (SOMM CD0614). What makes this program enjoyable and winning is the way the musical examples set each other off and so too the performances convince nicely. And it is especially notable for how the Constant Lambert music is of a very creative and inventive bent, keeping up with Walton's works in all senses.

Clusters of works alternate in ways that keep you interested. And we feel a certain astonishment (or I do anyway) as we hear the playful brilliance of Lambert, beginning with his piano duet "Trois pieces negres, pour les touches blanches." Immediately thereafter we get reaffirmation in something perhaps not-all-that-well-known but very worthy, something by William Walton, such as in this case the songs "The Winds," "Daphne," and "Tritons."

So the program alternates Lambert to Walton and back, piano duets to songs and back, culminating in Lambert's somewhat neglected piano duet arrangement of two Suites from Walton's "Facade," bringing all full circle, by ending in an expression of the natural synonymy and friendship of the two composers in a fitting collaboration.

In the process we get almost lighthearted expressions with very modern tangy spans that bristle with intelligence and wit. Tenor James Geer along with pianists Andrew West and Ronald Woodley make of it all a joyous thing. There is a wry quality to much of it, yet heartfully serious it is nonetheless.

Listen to Lambert's various "Songs of Li Po" and get the drift, the rather rare drift of it all, nature in the natural sequence of tones that nevertheless keep us guessing, culture in the expressive significance of it all, how it hangs together as art,  definitely as art. It is all crisply current, contemporary without calling attention to its originality that is nonetheless ever there. And that is a definite something very good indeed.

Check this one out, do! Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Eric Nathan, The Space of A Door, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

Consider this broad swatch of orchestral and chamber orchestral compositions on a new program of works performed with care and true musicality by the acclaimed Boston Modern Music Project under Gil Rose (BMOP Sound 1071). In the process of listening we come ear-to-ear with composer Eric Nathan (b. 1983), decidedly a new voice to be reckoned with from today's Modern US New Music scene. On it we are treated to some six works (seven if you count a multiple version as two items) spanning the period from his student days to recent times, 2008-2016.

Nathan studied with Steven Stucky, to whom he dedicates "The Space of a Door."  Eric currently holds down the position of Assistant Professor of Music (composition and theory) at Brown University and also enjoys a position as a Composer-in-Residence with the New England Philharmonic.

"Paestum for Orchestra" and the alternate "Paestum for Sinfonietta" (both from 2013) bookend the program and give us a kaleidoscope of alternately circling and linear oscillations in a poetically orchestrated matrix.

"Omaggio a Gesualdo"  (2013, rev. 2017) follows, with expressive string lines that give out with a present-day and imaginative equivalent to Gesualdo's poignant laments.

The title work "The Space of a Door" (2016) gives us some lyrical, dramatic and haunting music orchestrated vibrantly. As with the program as a whole this is in an expanded-tonality that has the spicy tang of a Modern palette without abandoning key centers. It evolves melodic-harmonically with a crescendo of expression that subsequently subsides into a reflective exploratory affirmation of a mystery. The music was inspired by the Providence Athenaeum built in 1836 and borrows from the opening motif of Brahm's Second Symphony! Beyond that it lives and breathes with its very own creative momentum.

"Timbered Bells" (2011) begins with an almost Varesian fanfare that dramatically extends into aural space effectively. It is a rather explosive showcase of orchestral expression, nice to hear.

"Missing Words I" (2014) most evocatively illustrates active verbal imagery in three short movements (Railway-Illusion-Motion, Autumn-Foliage-Strike-Fun, and Fingertips-Dance). It is music of great character and animation, both fun and rewarding to hear.

Finally there is "Icarus Dreamt" (2008), the earliest of the works represented. It is a gem of animation and dimensional musical action.

One comes away from this album as one often does with the Boston Modern Musical Project series, with the feeling that one has been in the presence of music that deserves to be more well-known, certainly. It is a good listen, an excellent program for anyone interested in the music of today. Bravo!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Eighth Blackbird, Singing in the Dead of Night, New Chamber Music

As always, music changes over time. Wake up one day and things are different. That is the case with the New Music ensemble Eighth Blackbird and their recent compilation of Minimal Post-Minimal works entitled Singing in the Dead of Night (Cedille CDR 90000 195). It is a series of world premiere recordings of new works by three composers well known for their innovative music, associated often enough with Bang On A Can and/or the central contemporary Minimalist contingency. This new offering reflects a changed all-over tendency with a modified take on repetition. The most obvious feature of the program is that on the whole things do not repeat as serially as they have in classic Minimalism. There is repetition but it is more integrated into the overall syntax of the harmonic-melodic spectrum of a work.

The Eighth Blackbird sextet collaborate with the composers for this three-work program meant to be played together in the order given. The ensemble excels in performing such music as one of the very finest of New Music chamber groups out there today. Each of the titles are taken from the Beatles song lyrics for "Blackbird" and subsequently tie meaningfully into the Eighth Blackbird's essential relation to the musical sequence.

Michael Gordon has not been one to be easily pinned down to a steadfast niche. So on his "The Light of the Dark" there are patterns that continue throughout, rhythmic complexities and layers of instrumental functions that grow and evolve organically without necessarily entering a hypnotic mesmeric mode. The lead violin part and its counterpart contrast against the cello motif to work well with each other and serve also to set up various musical punctuation events that pepper the work throughout. Eventually strings and piano swap roles and the variational continuity keeps all interesting.

David Lang's "These Broken Wings" in three parts recurs in between the other works for a certain dramatic flair. The final movement "learn to fly" has a rocking riff-like motif that the whole ensemble enacts with gusto. It relates to the opening first part in that there are familial motifs with the first movement being complexely quasi-polyrhythmic yet as driving as the finale.The middle part "passacaille" has reflective openness that breaks up with percussive outbursts. The melody line grows more noteful yet still gradual. It contrasts well with the outer movements.

Julia Wolfe's "Singing in the Dead of Night" evolves into a hard-edged, edgy brittle-supple sound with nicely ebullient string bowing and percussive blocks of dissonant piano punctuating it all. It hangs together well and evolves with increasing dramatic energy as it morphs into an airborn-like conclusion.

In the end the composers and ensemble create this five-part sequence as something over and above each individual work. The virtuoso abilities of the ensemble commingle with the broad vision of the three composers to create a cooperative whole that never becomes tiresome, wears well over time and creates a complexity far above the individual components taken singly.

It is a distinctive forward step in the New Modern-Post Era. It emerges without undue effort, naturally and without pretense. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Aaron Jay Kernis, Color Wheel, Symphony No. 4 "Chromelodeon," Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero

I've gladly covered the music of Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) on these pages (type his name in the search box for additional reviews), yet nonetheless hearing the new one by Gian Carlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony (Naxos 8.559838) is bringing a specially renewed sense of the bliss of orchestral High Modernity. Specifically this album brings to us the single movement Color Wheel (2001) and the multi-movement Symphony No. 4 "Chromelodeon"  (2018).

There is a commanding sense of orchestral color that is matched by an ever-burgeoning inventive continuousness in both works. Variational considerations mark both works nicely, as does a sure sense of balance and poise.

"Color Wheel" gives us twenty-some-odd minutes of brightly shimmering concerted dazzle and depth for orchestra. It bursts forward like a rapidly soaring bird. The music has endless energy and expanded harmonic declamation one gladly surrenders to with a sense of surprising inevitability. Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony play this music like they were born to it.

The "Chromelodeon" Symphony traverses three poetic mood movements, "Out of Silence" searching, exploring, questioning, "Thorn Rose. Weep Freedom (After Handel)" delightfully melancholy and rethought, and "Fanfare Chromelodia" mysterious, dramatic, brooding, then mercuric. It is masterful fare, brilliantly expansive, in the advanced Modernist tradition yet independently expressive of an original sensibility. You might sense a poetic affinity with Ives and Messiaen, but not in any imitative way. It is that good.

Anyone who loves music that is "ahead" in the most interesting senses will find in this volume a source of considerable interest. Kernis deserves your attention, especially this one! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Morton Feldman, Coptic Light, String Quartet and Orchestra, Arditti Quartet, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Michael Boder, Emilio Pomarico

The more Morton Feldman (1926-1987) performances that become available, the more I am convinced of his central importance to the 20th Century and beyond. Take for example a recent album of two later works Coptic Light (1986) and String Quartet and Orchestra (1973) (Capriccio C5378). The music is performed with insight and intelligence by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Boder for the former and Emilio Pomarico for the latter, plus the fine Arditti outfit as the string quartet. The works are most definitely seminal.

The two compositions contrast well and set each other off. "String Quartet and Orchestra" is introspective and exploratory. "Coptic Light" is like a sounded dream, with repeating motifs that have an expanded harmonic horizon and are not about the repetition so much as they encapsulate a horizontal movement through a gorgeously mysterious dreamscape that stands so far ahead of what some others might have been doing in 1986 that it virtually stands alone.

The liners suggest that there was a turning point at the close of WWII and the question posed then was whether to choose between Stravinsky or Schoenberg. The US Avant School centered around John Cage--including Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earl Brown--significantly followed neither as the liners insightfully point out, instead carving their own path, the implications of which we are still uncovering and exploring. As much as each of these composers still seems vital to our current world, Morton Feldman nevertheless stands somewhat alone as an original within the original stance, an unmistakable voice and personality within the school.

Both works are scored for a very full orchestra and Feldman's vivid sound color orchestrations take full advantage to create some extraordinary sonic landscapes.  In regard to this Feldman significantly cited Sibelius's contention that unlike the piano, the orchestra "has no pedal." Feldman went on to assert that Coptic Light creates that pedal. It does. As his last finished work it has a stunningly climactic quality in relation to the oeuvre as a whole, yet the String Quartet and Orchestra work included here makes its own case for music of an unforgettable sort, so that the two in tandem are especially rewarding.

This is some of the most beautiful "Modern" music there is out there. Do not hesitate to get this one if you want to know what that sounds like. Wonderful!

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

William Chapman Nyaho, Kete, Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora

The big wide world out there ever creates music and we are fortunate to live in times when it is possible to explore regions and repertoire we might have not known of a century ago. Some of that we can consider today with the album entitled Kete: Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora (MSR Classics MS 1708), as nicely played by pianist William Chapman Nyaho.

On it we are treated to some 32 piano miniatures, all compiled and published in 2007 by the pianist as the first two volumes of the anthology Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora by Oxford University Press.

We get to hear some lively music from such African composers as Isak Roux from South Africa, Nkeiru Okoye, Joshua Uzoigwe Akin Euba and Christian Onyeji  from Nigeria, Kwabena Nketia and Robert Kwami from Ghana, Halim El-Dabh from Egypt, Andre Bangambula Vindu  from the Congo, Laurindo Almeida from Brazil, Amadeo Roldan Y Gardes from Cuba, Eleanor Alberga from Jamaica, Alain-Pierre Pradel from Guadeloupe, Eleanor Alberga from Jamaica, Robert Nathaniel Dett from Canada/USA, and Ulysses Kay, Hale Smith, Florence Price, Valerie Capers, Wallace Cheatham and John Wesley Work III from the USA.

One as expected will hear some heightened rhythmic excitement and energy, including here and there elements of call and response. There are local influences at play throughout, local Jazz in the South African pieces, perhaps a little Highlife in the West African works, and understandably some Ragtime. Spirituals and Jazz shadings in the USA.

There is plenty to appreciate in the collection, not a great deal of conventional virtuoso display so much as down-to-earth rootedness and brightly energetic engagements. Maestro Nyaho plays all with spirit and commitment. Anyone with an interest in World and African strains in the classical repertoire will appreciate this, as will anyone who simply likes good music.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Arthur Somervell, A Shropshire Lad, Maud, Roderick Williams, Susie Allan

As much as I appreciate the best of the English composers from the beginnings of the 20th Century on, I cannot say that Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) was among those I have known and liked. That is, until now. A new volume arrived a few weeks ago for my inspection, namely an album of Somervell songs, principally the song cycles A Shropshire Lad, and Maud (SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0615).

Baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Susie Allan present the music with great spirit and charm. They go a long ways to put the music in an ideal light, to reveal the depth of sometimes folkish invention, the expressive totality of it all.

The Art Song and its flowering in the hands of masters like Schubert, Schumann and others up until today remains one of the musical blessings of "serious" cultural byways, though of course it is still generally not in the mainstream of common listening pursuits. So these Somervell songs are not likely to become some overnight sensation out there. For those who have cultivated an appreciation of the Art Song, however, and for those who have cultivated an appreciation for the English Renaissance of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten and so forth, here indeed is another voice to consider, someone you may have overlooked.

"A Kingdom By the Sea" (1901) sets Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" (four of the six lines) and is as good a place as any to start when giving this volume a first listen.

Singer Roderick Williams devotes several pages of the liners to an appreciation. Though on first inspection, he notes,  one might identify Somervell's songs as very much of their time, even perhaps "Victoriana?" But then there is the sheer pleasure one takes in singing and hearing these songs--and indeed with the psychological complexities of Maud, something that takes it all out of the realm of conventional love songs. It's also perhaps, as he remarks, an English-speaking listener's equivalent to the high-art Lieder of the Germanic classics?

Somervell initially studied composition at Cambridge with Charles Villers Stanford who also of course famously taught Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. It is perhaps for that commonality with Vaughan Williams especially that hearing these songs something immediately resonated with me. There is an earthy strain I suppose you could say that perhaps both got something of from contact with Stanford? What matters is that such a tendency in part makes these songs and their complexities transcend the niceties of the time period and both point toward and participate in the English Renaissance developments of the 20th Century.

The program in the end rewards the patient listener with some very well constructed and well performed songs. This one is a sleeper. If you are already something of an Anglophile musically then I believe you will naturally gravitate towards the music. If not, it is very pleasurable fare regardless. Give it a listen by all means.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Vyacheslav Artyomov, Album XI

Often it is instructive to explore a particular composer in terms of the different style shades you may hear in contrasting ensemble sizes and general forms. Take living Russian composer Vacheslav Artyomov, for example. Divine Art has been releasing or re-releasing a good amount of his music in the last few years. Much of it has been for orchestra. Now we get the chance to hear more of his chamber music in the recent Album XI (Divine Art dda 25198).

I've covered some of the more orchestrally oriented releases happily on these pages (type his name in the search box at the top left of this page to see those). The music on these albums gives us the High Modernist post-Scriabin, post-Shostakovich Artyomov and does so with a dramatic flair. Album XI brings us the chamber aspect of his version of the style. But it also gives you works that show a pronounced affinity with Avant Jazz shades of things as well. "Hymns of Sudden Wafts" (1983) features some exploratory energy for soprano and tenor sax plus piano and harpsichord. So also listen in this vein to "Litany I" for saxophone quartet and "Litany II" for three flutes and alto flute, and then the flighty "Capriccio on the '75 New Year" (1975), a distinguished Improv-New Music intersection for soprano and baritone saxes and vibraphone.

The other works included in this volume have less overtly Jazz-oriented roots. They are dynamic and well-conceived regardless. I respond gladly to the rangy exploration of the solo clarinet in "Sonata"(1966), the dramatic balance of "Sunday Sonata" (1977) for bassoon and piano, and the sharp and stirring resonance of "Four Armenian Duets" (1966) for soprano, mezzo-soprano and piano.

The sum total of the program of Album XI gives us a fully rounded look at chamber Artyomov and affirms that he belongs in our attention span as a Russian voice of true merit, a Modern stylist of originality and inventive strength. I recommend this one heartily.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Thomas Fortmann, Gimme Twelve, Seven New Music Works

Swiss native Thomas Fortmann had a successful career as a Rock songwriter before turning away to New Music Classical composition when he was 26. He waxed prolific on this scene. A fascinating mix of his instrumental works comes our way on the recent Gimme Twelve (Metier MSV 28598). FYI see also his chamber compilation In Dust We Trust that I covered here on June 6, 2013.

The liners inform us that Fortmann's New Music is rather beyond a specific style set. I do not disagree yet at least with the seven works in the current volume I find something refreshingly Neo-Classical about it all, essentially often unabashedly tonal, very vivid, extraordinarily well constructed and inventive, well scored and well played. The sound of the music stands out as special, as much as Stravinsky does in his Neo-Classical period but happily without sounding directly like Stravinsky.

Can you detect Fortmann's Rock background in this music? Certainly you can for parts of his opening "Grafeneck 1940," as nicely performed by Accademia Amiata (violin, percussion, piano). It in parts sounds something like classic Rock "jamming" at times--not so much that you hear a conscious grafting taking place because Fortmann presents a thoughtfully Modern matrix of multiplicity throughout the twenty-some-odd minutes of  playing time.

The general album title Gimme Twelve, as the composer suggests, is a clue to the music and its chromatic orientation to all twelve tones throughout--without sounding Serialist, but more syntactically post-song.. The cover art showing a girl balancing an elephant on her head the composer notes is also a key to the musical approach, i.e., one that combines "constructive thinking and sensuous feeling," a basic dodecaphonic working method with added constructions and deviations and ultimately with results more Fortmannesque than a typical 12-tone expression from last century. There are moments of dissonance, it is true, but they are often bridges and adjoining architecture more than entities in themselves.

The distinctive character of each work (mostly small chamber ensembles) becomes apparent as you listen repeatedly. So we become more familiar and appreciative of each in time--"Burla for Elena & Greta" features the eight member Gaia Festival ensemble, "The Murder of a Buttercup" for Camerata Impuls strings and flute, "Intermezzo Estatico" for the seven member Ensemble Paul Klee, "Concertino Gregoriana"  for the seven member Interharmony Arcidosso, "Gimme Twelve" for Organist Ertoro Candela, and the final "Postlude," also for Ensemble Paul Klee.

This is music that is not necessarily the latest "fashion," or perhaps by not being that is being that? It is most of all "good music," which of course should be what we seek in the end? That and musical talent. Gimme Twelve satisfies by providing and abundance of both. I've been enjoying this album quite a bit over the last few weeks. I do recommend you dive into it if you seek something new and very good. Bravo.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Eybler Quartet, Franz Asplmayr, Six Quartets, Op. 2, nos. 1-6

Who is Franz Asplmayr and why does it matter? He is associated with Vienna, lived 1728-1786. His early Six Quartets Op. 2 (Gallery Players GPN 20001 2-CDs) are now available to us (for the first time recorded in their entirety) by Toronto's Eybler Quartet. They were first published in 1769 when the composer was in his early 40s. By then he had been composing and playing violin in Vienna since around 1761 and would remain there in this capacity until his death.

By the end of his life he had composed 41 symphonies, 43 quartets, 70 trios and yet was best known in his lifetime for his theater works, including some 25 ballets. Patrick Jordan, Eybler Quartet's violist, tells us that getting acquainted with Franz Asplmayr's early quartets is a great way to contextualize the quartets of Haydn and Mozart into a wider Viennese totality. After listening to this fine two-CD set a number of times I feel I get what he is after there. Asplmayr is not quite a Mozart  nor a Haydn yet he shares a sort of Viennese inventive lyricism and brio with them. These are relatively straightforward quartets, not terribly complicated but then they sing out with a sort of essential joy. In this way they embody the opposite of banality.

I well loved the Eybler Quartets's rapid-fire renditions of the Beethoven Op. 18 quartets (see my review posts for April 8, 2018 and July 16, 2019). And now these Asplmayr recordings are again masterful in ways that confirm the wonderful freshness of the Quartet's vision of the Classical period. Strongly recommended.

Gary Wood, Philip Swanson, Aviary, Words in Poetry and Song

Consider a thematic album of a rather uncommon sort today--baritone vocalist Gary Wood and pianist-composer Philip Swanson perform a Swanson song cycle tied to a program of poetic texts about birds--and then they tackle some songbook and Jazz standards related to the same topic--all this on Aviary: Birds in Poetry and Song (MSR Classics MS 1730).

The Philip Swanson works form the central component and the principal attraction of the album. That part consists of 30-some-odd minutes of the totality. The cycle "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" features the Wallace Stevens poem grouping of the same name, set thoughtfully, tonally, with a poetic flare but not with an entirely Modern or Post-Modern typicality. At the same time the music does not hearken to a Romanticism, either. What they are is song-ful, invariably.

The two self-contained Swanson additions to the program linger in similar territory--"Great Grey Owl" with a poem by Annie Finch and "The Wild Swans at Coole" with poetics by William Butler Yeats, leave us wanting more, or at least that has been my reaction.

A Jazz-inflected mini-set follows, with emphasis on the songs, less on the "blowing" per se. So we get Horace Silver's "Peace" stated by Swanson's piano and then Wood and Swanson doing Hoagy's "Skylark" and "Baltimore Oriole," then Sherwin-Maschwitz's "A Nightingale Sang in  Berkeley Square" and closing with Tadd Dameron's "Ladybird." All of this revels in the bird theme certainly and nothing is wrong with the all of it but to me it is not as central performance-wise as the Swanson part of the program.

In the end the Philip Swanson songs are premier recordings and well worth hearing, so I do not hesitate to recommend that you listen.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gerald Levinson, Now Your Colors Sing

Gerald Levinson shows us how expressive and articulate his compositions are on the recent two-CD set Now Your Colors Sing (Innova 948 2-CD). There are ten works represented, ranging in performance size from solo piano to vocalist and full orchestra, from the Notre Dame organ to a chamber group. What's remarkable is how consistently memorable and unique the works are as a whole.

This is music of character. It is no accident that the piano work "Chorale for Nanine" is subtitled "Hommage a Messiaen" and similarly that "Musiques Nocturnes" is subtitled as a homage to Bartok. The influences are there, perhaps also a bit of George Crumb atmospherically. Imitation may be flattery but this is not imitation so much as inspiration. What subsists in it all is character, and a musico-literate fluidity.

Levinson's thirty minute "Anahata (Symphony No. 1)" is a key work in this offering, a strong statement, a dramatic essential. There may well be a Messiaenic sort of rhythmic-harmonic sophistication here but it suggests more than re-quotes. And it stands on its own.

The rest of the program also satisfies--with an appealing variety of sound colors and inventive content. Performances are quite fine, including the American Composer's Orchestra and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, both under Hugh Wolff, Marcantonio Barone and Charles Abramovic, pianos, soprano Carmen Pelton and Orchestra 2001 under James Freeman, etc.

It is a treasure trove of New Music from a well deserving voice, an original composer of distinction. Very recommended.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Froberger, Complete Fantasias and Canzonas, Terence Charlston

After a near lifetime of intensive listening I nonetheless have known next to nothing of Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-1667). Until now. A new CD gives us a lot of music, his Complete Fantasias and Canzonas (Divine Art dda25204). Terence Charlston brings nicely to us this abundant program from the aural point of view of a specially constructed period clavichord that gives out with a most distinctive tone. If it sounds more like a sewing machine than a harp that means one should try to open to its special sound and meet it halfway, so to speak. There is a tender fragility to the music as played on such an instrument--not so grand as it is modest, human, matter-of-fact and in-itself. And special to the time period concerned.

Vivaldi was born in 1678, Handel and Bach in 1685, Rameau in 1683. We general consumers of classical music tend to know later Baroque masters more than earlier ones. This in part explains why Froberger (born in 1616)  is not exactly a household name. True too is that the music we hear on this album does not proclaim itself as bold expression as much as the music of later Baroque masters did. Instead there is workmanship of a fine-hewed sort, of a quality that is best experienced cumulatively rather than climactically. And it is true in this that the music must be listened to with repetitive persistence, all the better to be able to gauge it more fully.

This is very contrapuntal and one might characterize the music as tightly knit and phrased in a longer, wider sense more than going for a pinpointed thematic brilliance. It thrives in how all works together in the long term, with the themes more like a long meandering river than the spectacular thematic highlights we might sometimes expect from a Bach or Handel. It is not that the themes are without distinction, but they are geared to make the overall contrapuntal matrix the main thrust. For that the music is masterful, lucid in its heightening of the "structures of the long run" (to borrow a phrase from anthropologist Marshall Sahlins).

In the end this is a carefully detailed reading of some gems from 1649, music that maintains high levels of contrapuntal brilliance as it gives an uncompromising vision of intimate chamber soundings some thirty years before the births of Handel and Bach. It is music any thorough explorer of Early Music should be happy to immerse self in. Good one! Take a listen.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Joan Valent, Poetic Logbook

From Mallorca, Spain, composer Joan Valent is a phenom. He refuses to be categorized. At least that is so on his very beautiful album Poetic Logbook (Deutsche Grammophon). There is a second volume out, a follow-up EP  but because of  COVID-19 ongoing I was unable to get a copy. Nonetheless I did get the first volume and I am happy I did.

It is music that is very lyrical, very consonant, very rhapsodic without being typically Romantic. There is a serenading element. The series of songs for soprano Maria Planas and the chamber ARS Ensemble are based upon poetry of note. They form the central focus of the album. Then there are instrumental works that go perfectly well with the songs--Ciaccona for Violin Solo, and Four Variations for chamber configurations.

The music is Post-Minimalist in that there may be an ostinato but the music ultimately feels more linear than cyclical. It is unabashed in its striving after beauty and that puts it in a place, on the surface in a kind of polar opposite to classic Modernism, which has had historically a more duplicitous relation to beauty--as Nielsen famously said, sometimes the music should be more "characteristic" than beautiful. But then again there is an energetically expressive, brio element to be heard in the music here as well, for example on "De Sentir" or with a sort of post-Bachian motor-impulsive cello on "Porto Amico."

This is music to savor, well performed, ravishing. Soprano Maria Planas and the ARS Ensemble sound wonderfully well  The music swims in summer whirlpools, settles into winter drifts, falling leaves and rises among spring budding. It's all nice and probably appealing to many ears, I would think. Bravo!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Noa Even & Stephen Klunk, Patchwork, New Music for Saxophone and Drum Set

Sometimes the daring of the how and the what of some music and music makers is unusual enough that the results are nearly automatically something important to pay attention to. For me, anyway. That is the case with Noa Even & Stephen Klunk's Patchwork (New Focus Recordings FCR255). Why? The duo of  saxophone and drum set is ordinarily one encountered in Avant Jazz/Free Improv channels. Here we get to experience such a duo for Avant New Music works in the equally edgy realm of ultra-Modern "Classical."

Stephen is on drums, Noa on sax. Patchwork is the name of the album and also of the duet itself. Five compositions comprise the whole of the program. Each has its own trajectory but all strive for a convergence of the two instruments/instrumentalists and put them through paces with a syntax more intensely dialogued with linear or cyclical content in an overt way than one might generally come across on a typical improvisation for such a duo. And the relative lack of composed drum-set sequences is also the case, so even just for that this is good music to encounter

There is a definite experimental daring to these works by Osnat Netzer, Hong-Da Chin, Eric Wubbels, Erin Rogers and Dan Tramte. As such the music most definitely feels its way through at times more than it supplies definitive pre-fab solutions. Eric Wubbels "Axamer Folio" struck me as being one of the most interesting compositions of the bunch for its complicated cyclical and non-cyclical event sequences.

The music clearly thrives in its challenging the duet to express things that sound lucid and progressively reasoned,  as a new sort of abstracted language of sound production that comes out of the last 70 years of avant improvisations for the two instruments. You might call this a kind of synthetic codification of that. But taken on its own it is completely self-sufficient as well. Even at tines exciting.

Patchwork goes boldly where no music has quite gone before--at least for sax and drums, anyway. That is quite a feat. One admires and congratulates all involved for having the chutzpah, perseverance and talent to come up with it all. Listen.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Mark Abel, The Cave of Wondrous Voice, World Premiere Recordings

I've covered the music of Mark Abel on these pages before (see articles from April 13, 2012, June 13, 2014, August 20, 2018). I never consciously sought to cover so many. It was one-at-a-time and I've found myself liking and posting on each. Now there is another one, a new one of chamber works, entitled The Cave of Wondrous Voice (Delos DE3570). It features a song cycle and three instrumental works for small chamber configurations.

Generally speaking this is not music that overtly seeks to call attention to itself by being extroverted-Modern or Avant Garde, nor is there a rock or pop influence in any obvious sense. Nonetheless it is inspired and very well put-together music that would not be mistaken for the music of the past nor perhaps as the music of some future utopia, either? It is straightforwardly intricate, expressive and inventive in good ways, in the best ways.

The first and last works are notable for their evocative and effective usage of the clarinet (David Shifrin)--"Intuition's Dance" for clarinet and piano (with Carol Rosenberger) and the "Clarinet Trio" adding Fred Sherry on cello.

"Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva" features Hila Plitmann's elastically expressive soprano with a plastically definitive Sarah Beck on English horn and Ms. Rosenberger once again well situated at the piano.

Finally a two-part "The Elastic Hours" pulls together violinist Sabrina-Vivian Hopcker with pianist Dominic Cheli for some of the most appealingly dynamic and alternately energetic music on the album.

What impresses consistently on this program is the beautiful melodic-harmonic poise of it all. One is reminded somewhat of a present-day Bartok in that the music creates an unforced and refreshing stream of inventive form-in-motion like the great Bela's music did so consistently. There is a continual series of musical acrobatics that neither relies upon the expected nor flavor-of-the-month bandwagoneering. That may mean that Mark Abel does not get a lot of attention for being on some cutting edge. The positive side of that is that the music always sounds lucid and relevant and by so doing should attract a wide variety of listeners.

This is rather brilliant written music that is well played. It will appeal to anyone who loves the intimate, "serious" sort of chamber music that speaks directly to the connoisseur of such things. An excellent program. Bravo!

Monday, May 25, 2020

James Primosch, Carthage, The Crossing, Donald Nally

The vocal ensemble known as the Crossing sound so beautiful that any composer no doubt is delighted to be performed by them. There is another album of theirs out recently featuring the music of James Primosch, Carthage (Navona 6287), There are six a capella works presented, including the title work and the "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus." Much of it was composed  recently, 1998-2019 in all.

Everything has that made-for-voices-hanging-together sound, with the subtle spice of modern harmonic movement and a widely hovering declamation of those gorgeous voices.

Each of the compositions has presence and memorability. The Mass and its five movements is the more lengthy but all show a remarkable natural part writing brilliance that the Crossing bring to life with great beauty, now lyrical and evocative, now expressive and dramatically surging forth. Not surprisingly the Mass is the most informed by a old-in-new contrapuntal melisma but nonetheless a pronounced contemporary edge.

It is all worth hearing, worth having, a thorough immersion in choral acuity. Kudos Donald Nally and the Crossing. Kudos James Primosch. Most heartily recommended.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Johann Sebastian Bach, Keyboard Partita No. 4, etc., Marija Ilic, Piano

As I grow older I find that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach seems ever more deep. And when a pianist makes a new selection of keyboard works that are worth re-hearing and then brings a fully pianistic expression to them, I am a happy listener. That's how I feel listening to a new volume of such things by Marija Ilic (MSR Classics 1724).

It's an almost whimsical reading of some classics, sounding almost like she is recalling the music in memory with some feeling of past-in-present, some fond associations the music brings to her. Perhaps I am projecting into the music how I myself feel about it? Not exactly, though, because this is a series of delicately dreamful readings, not a romping horserace like some of Glen Gould's classic interpretations, but then the choices reflect a reflection, a reflectivity more than a flurry.

So the two Adagios (BWV 1016 and 968) are calm and introspective, the "Six Little Preludes" have a brittle delicacy. But then the "Partita No. 4" has the deep waters of the "heavier," somewhat more profound Bach and Ms. Ilic gives it all the weight it demands.

In the liners they mention that the Times praise her for her "quiet intensity." Yes, I hear that, too. And with this particular setting and these interesting repertoire choices you have a real keeper. I am glad to have it and I suspect you'd be too, if you love Bach on piano. Bravo.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Nick Storring, My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell

Nick Storring's My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell (Orange Milk Records) resonates at once through a number of genres simultaneously. The music is Electroacoustic, New Music, Ambient, Neo-Psychedelic Rock and Soundscape all at once. The music is painstakingly built up out of many tracks laid down one-at-a-time by Storring on a great variety of acoustic and electroacoustic instruments--guitars, synths. violin, his primary instrument the cello, etc. The potent final conjugation is a heady orchestral melange that has roots in Sgt. Pepper's as much as Stockhausen, Pink Floyd, Fripp and Eno as much as Morton Feldman and John Luther Adams, or even Funkadelic for a minute or two! And out of that comes a certain brilliance, real brilliance.

The Toronto based Storring put this together as a tribute to Roberta Flack. That might not suggest itself to you if you did not already know it but the point is that the ambitious soundscape transcends any possible reference point gloriously to exist in itself. The music has Progressive thrust and a wonderful sense of "orchestration" that comes out of Storring's remarkable sound-color vision.

And in the end it defies genre to exist on its own plane, a singular thing of beauty, a remarkable set of short pieces that flow together in one long, convincing stream of musical being. It is a conglomeration of influences that all together come together as the future of the past. And perhaps all music of note exists in that way?

I recommend this one heartily. It could have been listed in any number of my other blogs because it is everywhere at once. It is a ravishingly fine album. Do not miss it if you can help it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Jeremy Beck, By Moonlight

If one is to be fair in evaluating the various New Music albums that might come your way these days, it is best not to have a pre-conceived set of stylistic expectations that push the discussion into a pre-judgement. This may be a recent development. If you were listening to the assortment of New Music releases in the '70s or '80s it was fair to expect that the music would likely be either High Modern, pre- or post-Serialist, or Minimalist. Nowadays all those categories still exist, yet there are other possibilities as we continually see. When describing music, I find myself often enough making a turn to labels I have long thought are useful in that they give you a shorthand clue as to the music you could hear, what it generally might sound like, and now those possibilities include anything or everything. I have not abandoned the typologies-labels here because I still think it helps potential listeners, but they are no longer the end-all of considerations, surely, if they ever were.

For example we have the music of contemporary living US composer Jeremy Beck in an album entitled By Moonlight (Innova 051). It covers some nine works in a wide variety of ensemble possibilities--solo guitar, choir, tenor and piano, several stringed instruments, full orchestra, etc. The music is unabashedly tonal, perhaps a bit on the painter-of-tones side of things, lyric and expansive, not exactly a Modern-day Copland, but not exactly Neo-Classical either. Perhaps something in between, in original ways.

The last composition in the program, the relatively short "Three Pieces for Orchestra" takes flight most happily in the painterly zone--in general, not that the music engages in referential specifics to the extent of something like, say, Copland's "Appalachian Spring." The mood is soundfully sunny and pastoral, but not so literal. The first movement depicts moonlight, the second a prelude to Beck's opera The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel, and the third a "Serenade" based on a movement from his fifth string quartet. It holds up on repeated hearings, as does the rest of the music in general.

The opening work, "Concertino" for two cellos and string orchestra also gives us some very heartening lyricism, this slightly more folksy than not but very fresh in its phrasing out of long melodic streams, and all that is most appealing.

The beginning and the end of this program give us vibrant music that, even if taken alone gives us sufficient reason to like this music. Yet there are a great deal of contrasting things in between as well. Given the terse but appealing brevity of much of it a detailed blow-by-blow delineation of what you would hear would be perhaps a little too much detail for this review article?

Yet a few touchstones might be in order. "Dream and Echoes" is a two movement satb choir sequence beautifully lyrical. "Of Summers Past, or Passing" gives us nicely ruminative and inventive movements for clarinet and piano.

"Two Pieces for Guitar" sounds timeless yet at the same time sounds like a past-in-the-present kind of Modernity that does nicely defy expectations yet channels the guitar-lute literature as a whole into something personal and in the present moment.

The solo cello "Prelude and Toccata" has a kind of proudly bold set of double-stop punctuated declamations both dramatic and toneful, then jumps into a dancingly jaunty second movement that is quite appealing.

The music disarms me as a listener by not calling attention to itself as an example of some new trend, some flavor-of-the-month fodder for some genre cannon. Instead it beguiles purely on its own terms as a series of  miniatures and one-offs most notable in themselves more so than examples of some larger movement. That is all fine if one listens without expectations. It is regenerative music nice to accompany the need for a more hopeful mood? As nature becomes awakened in full spring as I write this I feel the music helps do justice to the glorious seasonal opening of buds. Most pleasurable a listen it is. Bravo Jeremy Beck.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Ning Yu, Of Being, Music By Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki, Emily Praetorius

In these days we live through it is sometimes natural to reflect on how things have come to be. During such times the music we hear can be quite fitting if it is thoughtful and introspective. I've found that to be much the case on a new album, Of Being (New Focus FCR242) by pianist Ning Yu. It is her very first solo album and features the world premier recordings of three solo works.

Each of those works explores the sonarities, the harnessing of substantial virtuoso abilities to a music at hand and the extended technical possibilities of new piano music the way it has opened up in the past 100 years. The works are ripe with expressive potential, well realized by Ning Yu. Each of the pieces seeks to make a conceptual element come alive through evolved, Abstract Modern expression.

The opening composition is "Rates of Extinction" in five relatively short movements by Wang Lu. As the program notes tell us it is "both a lament for mortally endangered species and a celebration of  pianistic virtuosity." There is much going on throughout.

Misato Mochizuki's single-movement "Moebius-Ring" is a musical realization of a mathematical paradox identified by the title. A set of variations centers around pulsations that repeat, gradually deconstructs down to one note and then rebuilds again.

The third and final work, "Of Being" by Emily Praetorious seeks to examine the space between time in suspension and time flowing.  The music uncovers subtleties in decay, interval-to-interval relationships, the continuous articulation of lines across a wide-set of registers and varied attacks including dampened pitches, harmonics, bursts of pianism and a movement through increasingly high density soundings. It all gives us a heightened perception of time set into motion.

In sum we are treated to a highly sophisticated set of piano works played with emotional commitment and thoughtful precision. It is music difficult to play but not so difficult to explore with a proper attitude and a bit of patience.

Ning Yu is a wonder of contemporary pianism, taking on each of the three works with an ideal sense of focus and aesthetic expression. The works themselves in turn give to us a proverbial Zen rock garden of sound and sensibility exhilarating to hear. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Gunther Schuller, The Fisherman and His Wife, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The late Gunther Schuller (1925-2015) was enormously influential on the American musical scene as I grew up. He was a Modern composer of great breadth and originality, one of the main forces behind so-called Third Stream Music which sought to meld Classical and Jazz, a major innovator in music education in his leading role at the New England Conservatory, and a musicologist and author of great consequence, writing among other things the classic Early Jazz.

In spite of all that his own compositional output has not in the present day been getting the exposure it deserves. A worthy exception is the new Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Odyssey Opera recording of The Fisherman and His Wife (BMOP/sound 1070), Gil Rose conducting.

The opera was completed in 1970 and was performed as recently as 2015 by BMOP/Odyssey in a memorial concert. The libretto enshrines John Updike's wry adaptation of the classic Grimm Brothers tale of the same name, about a fisherman who catches an enchanted prince in the form of a talking fish and subsequently intervenes for his wife who asks the fish to grant her a sequence of increasingly demanding wishes.

The point of it all is the ingenuity of the combination & contrast of the music with the libretto and the implications, the complexities of the score and its diffuse pointing beyond. The cast of  five singers (Sondra Kelly, Steven Goldstein, David Kravitz, Katrina Galka and Ethan Depuy) each take on their roles well and the orchestra sounds excellent as always.

The beautifully involved expression of orchestra and vocalists has an original Modernity and definite traces of Jazz soundings in an inimitable way. The orchestration has subtle brilliance, power and chromatic heft. Each scene has like a modern abstract painting a surface and a depth that becomes more apparent and revealing the more one is exposed.

It's a good one for your collection of Modern US milestones, if you like to gather such things together for your reference and enjoyment. Viva Gunther Schuller!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Peteris Vasks, Viola Concerto, String Symphony "Voices," Sinfonietta Riga, Maxim Rysanov, Viola & Conductor

There is a quiet sort of yearning present in some of the best works of Latvian-born Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) and it is not so much Romantic in intent as it is more widely mysterious. We can hear this readily and quite happily on the recent release of the Viola Concerto String Symphony "Voices" (BIS 2443). Maxim Rysanov most capably and beautifully plays the solo viola part and conducts Sinfonietta Riga, who in turn sound fully ravishing.

The "Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra"  (2014-15) opens with an ultra-tonal primality that has some of the folk-like string lyricism of Hovhanness and the longing long-tones of an Arvo Part.Yet one would not confuse this music with either composer because Vasks authoritatively brings his self-singing into it all. The stage is set for the viola and the entrance confirms open and stopped string eloquence and earthiness combined. The second movement catches the folk-dance mood and makes of it something beautifully wrought and infectiously engaging. The music grows more vivid and energetic in the third movement before the last movement and its exquisite peace.

The "Symphony for Strings 'Voices'" follows, written some years earlier in 1991. It opens with a strongly yearning series of chordal string blocks, goes on to depict groups of birds singing in the middle movement, with some of the most lyrically evocative music he has written. The movement culminates in a beautifully exuberant, collective mass twitter. In contrast the final movement expresses some of the political upheaval the Baltic States were undergoing while the music was coming into being. Dubbed "Voices of conscience," it expresses dismay and perhaps a yearning sense of hope. culminating in an outcry and then serene reflections perhaps, a kind of hopeful resignation? It is moving music.

So we end where we began, in a contemplative silence. Vasks' music is here especially thoughtful, seemingly perfect for the reflective solitude many of us may find ourselves experiencing of late. We get two deeply introspective works played especially well. It gives us a perfectly representative introduction to his music for those not familiar but then provides a welcome addition for those who know the composer and want more. Bravo!

Wet Ink Ensemble, Glossolalia, Lines on Black, Music of Sam Pluta and Alex Mincek

New Music especially in the so-called Avant Garde often implies a future where that music will somehow be in the mainstream. Yet the future nowadays seems less preoccupied with "serious music" than it has at times been. Is it a sign of things to come? So for example Beethoven's late string quartets may be embraced by the community of classical musical professionals today but it hardly is "popular" fare in some statistical sense. If we look back to the "High Modern" works of the past 100 years, of course not everything has ended up in the standard repertoire. Rather few have, on the whole. But then New Music in our time has spawned followers who may listen to it instead of the standard fare. The most daring of such works have taken risks, experimented with novel aural and musical ideas and combinations, gone into aesthetic realms few dreamed of in the past. And such music has gathered a small but devoted following because such a thing can excite and give pleasure, of course.

Someone from 150 years ago, if they magically time-traveled to today and heard the album Glossolalia/Lines on Black (Carrier Records 048) by the Wet Ink Ensemble, they might be a good deal more shocked by what they would hear than any of us today who have lived with New Music as a steady diet. The album is expressively filled with timbral and textural extensions and experiments that they might have had no intimations about in their day. The electronically derived-altered sounds and extended instrumental techniques are in fact novel at times yet we have been prepared for them by sound-color advances we have lived with for years. What's more at times such sound innovations have even entered Popular music in the form of synths, samples and studio techniques.

And by now have many of us who listen to such things no longer trouble ourselves too much with how many of the new things we hear will be singled out in 500 years as seminal to the world and its continued rolling changes? We might instead ask, does it retain interest for us when listening repeatedly? Is it worth an immersion into?

In the case of the album at hand the answer for me anyway is emphatically, "yes!" We have in the ensemble the considerable talents of Erin Lesser, flutes, Josh Modney, violin, Kate Soper, voice, Alex Mincek, saxophone, Eric Wubbels, piano, Ian Antonio, percussion and Sam Pluta, electronics (and audio production). All have centered in New York City. Each has mastered the complexities of advanced New Music performance and each contributes compositions to the group's repertoire as I understand it.

For this release Mincek presents his seven movement "Glossolalia" and Pluta his nine movement "Lines on Black." Each work makes of every movement a special showcase for one or more of the ensemble members. So "Apmonia" (from "Glossololia") highlights violin and piano stridencies, then switches to snare and electronics before moving on to the final movement with the latter plus vibes, piano, voice and etc., for a rollicking helter skelter of entrances and exclamations. Everything is heightened as performativity, as a special vehicle for the artists as a group and individually. There is a vibrant level of expression one can often enough hear in the best of free improvisational musics yet too sometimes the more tightly prescribed and ordered sequences of New Music on the "Classical" end of things.

One might suggest that this result is especially forwarded by the composer-performer interface as close and continually interactive. In this way we get a New Music equivalent perhaps of the classical Duke Ellington Big Bands where each instrumentalist is captured in the compositions as a special musical personality.

So here it is the immediacy of the personal input of the performers combined with the complex compositional vision of each of the two works that make this program special and set this music apart as individual and noteworthy.

What people will be remembering about the music of the present in 500 years is virtually anyone's guess. Right now, however, the music of the Wet Ink Ensemble does a great job capturing our very much living present. You should by all means give this one a listen.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Thomas Ades, Works for Solo Piano, Han Chen

Thomas Ades (b. 1971) has over the past several decades been somewhat quietly but steadily establishing himself as one of England's most vital new compositional lights. I've been appreciating his chamber and orchestral works but never really encountered his treatment of the piano. All that changes with Works for Solo Piano (Naxos 8.574109), a volume of some seven interesting pieces well played by Han Chen.

The works come at us from the recent and fairly recent past, 1992-2018. My first impression on listening, which has stayed with me, was how pianistic it all is, so that we get a pianistic Ades, something a bit other compared to the orchestrational and chamber-pieces identity. Here we get a kind of registrational, touch-oriented Ades. It is most underscored, most about the notes, or so that seems to me as I listen. You might say that all solo piano music aims to registrate and touch, and that is as true with this music as any. Here Ades brightly and brilliantly succeeds where some others may not completely do so.

There is Lisztian panache in the 2009 "Concert Paraphrase," some almost Japanese sounding Dowland-lute-influenced expression with dampened strings on "Still Sorrowing" (1992) and the epically stretched and trilled impact of the companion piece "Darkness Visible." The world premiere recording of "Blanca Variations" shows us a thoughtful, pensive side, lyrically robust.You can hear a kind of Modernist post-Scriabin on "Traced Overhead" (1996).  Then there are haunting, mysterious post-Chopin explorations and playfulness on the "Mazurkas for Piano" (2009). "Souvenir" (2018) closes out the program with a kind of heartbreaking lyricism. It sounds like peak experience filtered in somewhat melancholy memory.

It's all good and it gives you a side of Ades that strongly portrays him in broad outlines and pictorial pastels. He can allow influences to show without losing sight of his own musical vision and he remains in the expressive tradition yet completely Modernist in overall impact. The music has some teeth, some bite. It challenges the player with original ornateness yet never seems to lose the center of its melodic-structural thrust.

It's a vital set of works played with obvious relish and sympathy. Anyone who lives to hear the ivory-ebony towers of sound possible in our times will no doubt find this one as fascinating as I have. Kudos to all involved!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Jackson Greenberg, First Light EP

It is safe to say that music will never end so long as there are humans to make it and hear it. And all the while the legacy of that making cannot stand still because there is ever the new. Here on this COVID-19 sheltering Friday in April I have another worthwhile album of New Music to share with you.

It is an EP of the music of a composer new to me, one Jackson Greenberg. The EP is entitled First Light (Ravello RR8031) after the first of two compositions featured on the album.

The title work depicts a kind of gradual upward rising-swimming from deep in the seabound core to the light at the surface of the water, a long and still, surrounded ascent depicted in droning unfoldings and gradually evolving light and texture transposed to orchestral sound, ever closer to the visible and so ever more actively hypnotic. It was inspired by listening to an electronic alteration, a stretching of a snippet of music, then using a part of that and writing an orchestral soundscape that took off from that sound. It is moving music, very meditative and cosmic.

"The Panther" follows as a worthy contrast. A recitation in German of Rainer Marie Rilk's poem  threads its way though the work  a fair number of times as the strings and extended aural sustains envelop the hearer. The music is expressive with a warm and epic tonality, the new primal Post-Romantic equivalent perhaps of some elemental "Verklarte Nacht"? Or maybe not exactly. Really it lives for my ears as a feelingful breath of fresh air. Tonal, yes. Yearning without being maudlin, mysterious more than material, harmonically involved, yet also elemental.

In all, this EP gives us Jackson Greenberg in ways revealing and most energizing and hopeful in mood. Right now we may need a little of that and it makes me too want to hear more of his work. Bravo.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravska Banda, Distant Radio Transmission

Chicago's Roscoe Mitchell over his long and extraordinarily productive career has shown himself to be among the very greatest innovators as saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, Free Improvisation-Free Jazz artist and New Music-Jazz Composer of the present Modernism. He is surely destined to be remembered as a key member of the iconic AACM Art Ensemble of Chicago. But there has been much more to him as well. The eclectic and intelligent compositional-improvisational superlatives that have come out of the AEC band over its long tenure as a top avant contender has been paralleled by Roscoe Mitchell's continuing career as vibrant soloist and bandleader on his own.

Yet as important as all these things have been, his output as composer in the New Music realm in time may well be considered of proportional importance some day in the future, if not now. There have been far fewer documentations of this aspect of his music on disk. Happily we have a new recording that nicely covers some of that--Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravska Banda Performing Distant Radio Transmission (Wide Hive WH 0347).

The album spotlights four compositions for various  performers.

The centerpiece of the program is the title work, "Distant Radio Transmission," as played by the 33 member orchestra Ostravska Banda conducted by Petr Kotik, featuring Roscoe Mitchell improvising on sopranino sax. Baritone vocalist Thomas Buckner has a prominent expressive wordless vocal part which seems to make sense in the context of the whole but seemingly also involves some spontaneous improvisational aspects. Mitchell and Buckner interact in some rather astonishing ways at any rate.

The complete genesis of "Transmission" is rather involved. It took birth originally in the form of an improvisation recorded by Mitchell, Craig Taborn and Kikamju Baku in 2013 (released as part of the CD Conversations 1). That segment was transcribed by Stephen P. Harvey in 2016. John Ivers then transcribed and did an initial orchestration of Mitchell's "air sounds for Strings" the following year. Finally the whole of it was orchestrated by Mitchell and comes to us in this final form.

There is a pronounced harmonic and melodic diffusion to the work, which is heightened by the bright sound colors in the orchestration. It is a testament to the initial inspiration of the made-music, of how to collectively and freely make sense spontaneously and then how that initial impetus can take flight again as a completely new progeny when orchestrated. The logic of the group improvisatory gesture remains but the music reshapes as an incredibly superorganic beast of multi-dimensions, starting first with the electronic exotics of James Fei and then involving the amassed forces with ensuing dialogues overtop that--for baritone and sopranino sax. Protracted listening brings out the beauty of the complexity and as one re-listens it so also heightens the logic of the multivaried expression. It is brilliant music!

The three chamber works that follow "Transmission" are by no means filler but instead add a great deal of pivotal New Music and open us happily to further musical adventures.

"Nonaah Trio" for flute, oboe and piano take off from Roscoe's 1971 solo sax work and makes of it an entirely new through-composed sequence for trio that retains some of the cyclical assertions of the original but then builds fleshed-out expressive bridges to a chamber whole.

"Cutouts" (for Woodwind Quintet) comes to us as a result of a 1981 commission.  This version gets completely worked through via conventional notation and special symbols to indicate harmonics and other extended techniques. It is a full-fledged work of importance, and it grows in your musical imagination the more you hear it.

"8-8-88" in three movements brings to us the digital reproduction and multiplicationj of piano techniques via the Yamaha Disklavier, allowing a density and velocity that would not be available in the conventional piano-pianist situation. It is played-recorded-programmed quite excitingly by Seth Horvitz. It was composed by Mitchell from 8-8-88 onwards, originally for Joseph Kudera. The result is extraordinary music of great complexity, painstakingly composed by Roscoe over a long period. The first movement alone took ten years to complete to the composer's satisfaction. It is a masterful work, a wonder to experience.

This volume should do much to help extend our knowledge and appreciation of the Mitchell New Music oeuvre. It gives us some critically advanced examples, excellently played in vivid soundstaging.

It is a new but essential contribution to our New Music Modernist cannon in my opinion. All who want to know what has been happening that's good should listen closely. Bravo!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Zephyr Quartet, Epilogue

The Zephyr Quartet tackles nine works with a pronounced stylistic leaning towards a New/Radical Tonality on their album Epilogue (Navona 6275). What is most notable and unusual is that all nine works were written in turn by each member of the quartet (Kleinig, Geniert, Tulloch, Thomas). Remarkable, perhaps even more remarkable is the unity in concept of all the works. They differ sufficiently to gain a true individuality but they also have in common folksy-cum-primal meta-pop diatonic roots both lyrical and earthy. The Australian quartet realizes each of these works with the right mix of passion and precision, bringing out the nuances consistently and invariably.

Here follows a little run-down of  the music and something of what it is all about:

Hilary Kleinig, "Great White Bird"--a drone with harmonics opens and the cello plays a folkish sort of expression overtop that, then a violin takes up the strain while the cello begins an ostinato motif and the melody takes off further,  harmonized and made rhythmic.

Belinda Geniert, "Femme Fatale"--three short movements contrast, the first an unfolding arpeggiation that evolves into an evocative sequence, then a second section with vivid melody over pizzicato strummings, then a third part with vivid contrast, etc. Two further movements provide lyrical freshness, new developments among extensions of the initial material, and on we go.

Hilary Kleinig, "Cockatoos"--diatonic with minimal-like passage work underneath a flowing lyrical melody.

Hilary Kleinig, "Exquisite Peace"--more primal, ritualistic long tone blends with bounce-bowing effects that give the music texture.

Emily Tulloch, "Blindfold Gift"--a wistful and refreshing jaunt through a pizzicato playfulness, followed by a dancing pattern that sounds almost jig-like.

Emily Tulloch, "Our Lovely Star"--an ostinato counterpoint that has plenty of charm.

Jason Thomas, "Mulysa"--opens with a folk drone underpinning a simple but expressive melody, then a pizzicato waltz ostinato with a more lively folk-fiddle melody, etc.

Jason Thomas, "Time's Timeless Art"--a slowly unraveling andante with a vaguely pastoral feel, a hushed stillness in sound.

Belinda Geniert, "Epilogue"--a repeating lyricism in four-voices unfolding endlessly in fascinating ways.

It is music of a rooted simplicity that turns out to be complex and varied enough to hold up under repeated hearings. If you meet this music on its own ground it is a very happy listening experience, not tedious as such things might be in lesser hands. It is folksy enough to remain continually unpretentious and unassuming, yet giving out with inventive content and lively execution.

This is good music, well played. It may not be exactly what you might expect from New Music but it goes where it goes nicely and does what it does quite interestingly. Give it a listen!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Zosha di Castri, Tachitipo

Who is Zosha di Castri? She is a living composer, someone in the Contemporary Modern camp in her own way. A portrait album of a cross-section of her work has been out since late last year and it is a very worthwhile program. Tachitipo (New Focus Recordings FCR227) has been on my blog playlist this past week. I am glad to post on it today.

There is a good deal to like in this portrait, some six works by various performers and configurations.

The title piece "Tachitipo" (2016) is the most lengthy of the works at 24 minutes. It is scored for two pianos, two percussionists and electronics. There are machine-like, automata-like passages for dampened or prepared strings on the piano and percussion parts working together for something one gladly rises up to encounter in one's listening mind. They are like islands scattered among more fluid oceanic expressions, the latter "quasi-improvisatory textures featuring microtonal washes of pitch," in the composer's words.  The contrasting blocks work together to leave a distinct impression of newness, of a pronounced virtuosity of sonarity. Like the 1823 Italian typewriter model for which the work is named it proceeds, the composer suggests, "one key at a time," or in other words in sectional steps. Yarn/Wire perform the work with enthusiasm and imagination.

Chronologically the album opens with an a capella vocal work "The Animal After Whom Other Animals are Named" (2013) for six voices and electronics. It is one of the more diffuse pieces and the vocal group Ekmeles jumps into it all with a flourish and a relish. The work looks at aging, of the voice and the human being as a whole.  I am not sure I would have started the set out with this one, only because it demands a fair amount of concentration on the part of the listener, but like all New Music one should pay attention from the first, so no matter.

The following "Cortege" (2010) for 13 musicians  thrives in the lively reading given it by the Talea Ensemble under Lorraine Vaillencourt. It according to the composer came out of an inspiration involving a procession, a strange, "relentless succession of people and sounds." The piece is filled with rollingly explosive interactions, each a part of the passing scene, as if one were watching a parade from a window. It also gives the feeling of "impending loss," as on the eve of a city falling into enemy hands or the inexorable loss of a lover as Zosha suggests. The work is quite exemplary of a thoroughgoing Expressionism that never flags and continually morphs. 

Enter next the JACK Quartet, who handle di Castri's "Quartet No. 1" (2016) with a flair. The resulting tumultuous music rebounds off the imagination-receptive ear quite nicely. Virtuoso parts, deep energetic forays and a sense of cosmic proportions makes this one a good starter if you are auditioning the album. It is very idiomatically string-oriented, boisterously alive, a great example of how the string quartet continues to be a context where the more serious gestures can flourish.

The complexities and dash of the solo piano "Dux" (2017) rivets the attention, then keeps it centered on itself throughout the 11:40 performance time. It contrasts the extremes with the middle registers as a wide-ranging whole and places definite demands on pianist Julia Den Boer that she tackles with heroic intensity. This is beautifully wild piano music that gets the adrenaline going.

Finally there is "La forma dello spazio" (2010) for a quintet of flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello. Rising to the occasion is the International Contemporary Ensemble under Vaillancourt. The performers are to be auditorally placed about the room or soundstage, expressing movement against stasis as would a mobile. Each instrumentalist is given a flexibility within a set kind of continuousness. The happy whole has dynamic thrust and a hypnotic meditativeness.

So there we have it. Zosha di Castri shows herself in this album to be a voice of definite originality and talent, an imaginative and inventive force. The performers give the music their rapt attention and expressive zeal. Highly recommended for those New Music followers ready for something very new and invitingly expressed.

Monday, April 13, 2020

John Aylward, Angelus, Ecce Ensemble

The nearly infinite stylistic possibilities of the present day do not guarantee of course that everything will be great. In the end a little greatness is as rare a thing now as any other time. I must say the album coming out this month of the music of John Aylward, namely his Angelus (New Focus FCR 261) is well situated in a post-Serialist High Modern zone so not exactly a surprise but then there is some greatmess to it all, the work, the performance by vocalist Nina Guo and the chamber Ecce Ensemble directed by Jean-Phillippe Wurtz. It occupies a place in a lineage that includes Pierrot Lunaire and Le Marteau sans Maitre. That is it features a chamber ensemble of modest proportions, a singer, singer-speaker, or (for Schoenberg) a Sprechstimme vocal part that is unified in a literary segmented-sequential manner.

The music is High Modern in tone and texture. It has that widely ranging would-be Serialist expansiveness like the Schoenberg and the Boulez. The texts bring out dimensions of human experience as Aylward recalls a trip to Europe he made with his mother--her first since fleeing during WWII, and involved with that experience is the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Texts are meant to illuminate this experience and include enlightening textual excerpts by the likes of Adrienne Rich, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Jung, Weldon Kees, etc.

There is a haunting moodiness to the music that raises it in my mind to some of the earlier chamber-literary classics mentioned above. Soprano Nina Guo has an extraordinarily clear and bell-clarion suchness to her voice on this. The Ecce Ensemble (which Aylward is the director) sounds born to the music.

On this rainy Easter Monday of the Pandemic Lockdown here in New Jersey I while writing this review was visited by four wild turkeys looking for food in the back yard that adjoins my apartment. All writing can have time-capsule aspects and this one does purposely because the time is so unprecedented. The deserted-of-humans realm outside during the sheltering-in-place happening now no doubt encouraged the turkeys to come forth. They never would be expected to come so far into the human zone otherwise as far as my experience goes. The excellence of this music contrasts with the unknowns of the future, the ramblings of the turkeys and the juxtaposition of those three makes me appreciate the human achievement of Angelus all the more.

I do very much recommend this album. It is a triumph, a chamber work one hopes NOT for the end of the world but for a new beginning? Listen if you can.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

James Lentini, Through Time and Place, Bronislaw Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra, etc.

With the extraordinarily trying times we are living through we of course want to keep on with what we feel is most valuable in our lives as we can. And so my own survey of what New Music has been coming out keeps on. Today there is the music of James Lentini (b 1958) a US composer, guitarist and academic with a long career and a significant body of works.

A program of select Lentini orchestral works from 1994-2010 has been getting my listening ear in the last few weeks. Through Time and Place (Navona NV6273) covers some five ambitious and adventurous works for wind symphony, symphony orchestra and one for soprano, chorus and orchestra. As we come to expect from Navona, for this program the production values are uniformly high; performances range from the quite respectable to the very good. There are a fair number of organizations involved--the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Iannaccone, the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra under Ricardo Averbach, The Wayne State University Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Norah Duncan IV, The Wayne State University Wind Symphony under Douglas Bianchi and the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra under Jerzy Swoboda.

The music has a uniformly expressive demeanor that takes full advantage of the tonal nuances available in contemporary performing groups via nicely orchestrated and complex layering of interlocking sectional interplay. This is exemplary American Contemporary Modern with a harmonically involved tonality as rooted in American Central-Modernists such as William Schumann and other post-Copland compositional voices, and then perhaps a shade of the fanfare-like unfoldings of Edgard Varese. James Lentini holds his own by expressing a personal take on this style set. All five works have a pronounced dramatic and timbral tensileness that stand up under close scrutiny.

The "Three Sacred Meditations" (2000) for soprano Dana Lentini, chorus and orchestra is perhaps the most ambitious of the works along with the recent "Through Time and Place (Symphony No. 1)" (2010). Nonetheless there is well put-together, absorbing orchestral additions in "Sinfonia di Festa" (1996), the dramatically ravishing "Dreamscape" (1994) and the mysteriously moving wind symphony work "The Angel's Journey" (1998), the latter two certainly personal favorites and definite highlights of the program.

Anyone who likes to engage in exploring present-day orchestral Modernism in the USA will no doubt find this volume of definite interest. James Lentini has a voice that deserves a hearing. Bravo.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Bloch, Muczynski, Reger, 20th Century Music for Cello. Benjamin Whitcomb

Anyone who knows Bach's unaccompanied cello music knows how intricate and unforgettable it all is--especially after one has heard it a few times. For the serious listener it is an excellent embarkation point for further explorations into the cello repertoire. Assuming that, today we have an alternate journey through the unaccompanied zone with 20th Century Music for Cello (MSR Classics MS1587) as performed quite ably and perhaps even selflessly by Benjamin Whitcomb. It is a good selection of some three less-well-known works and even perhaps one simply not at all well-known solo cello work from last century.

It consists of the "Gallery--Cello Suite" (1966) by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), the "Cello Suite No. 2" (1915) by Max Reger (1873-1916) and lastly another "Cello Suite No. 2" (1957), this one by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). You may not know some or perhaps even any of these works. Yet in this Whitcomb recital they stand out as things that supplement how you look at the unaccompanied cello possibilities, all owing something indirectly from Bach and also the 20th Century and its expanded sense of melodic-harmonic development. The works are post-Romantic without being avant exactly. They all share with Bach's unaccompanied cello works the Suite format--a grouping of interrelated brevities that manage to cohere as one gesture.

Whitcomb gives us a reading of these works which are marked for their rather unassuming straightforward approach. They are neither heart-on-the-sleeve molto-expressivo nor are they spun out with some carpet-making regularity. That is to say that they are attentive to the widest arcs of the musical syntax as well as the fine-meshed details. Whitcomb does not turn these into extroverted virtuoso vehicles so much as he produces a well balanced set of readings that allow the listener to gauge the works properly, assuming an unfamiliarity and/or an appetite for the compositional wholes--as wholes.

For me the Muczynski is the happy surprise, in that I did not know the work. Nonetheless all three pieces get a bold no-nonsense definition here. They are good to hear--probably regardless of the specifics of your general orientation to the contemporary. So take a listen if you will.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Ilari Kaila, Aizuri Quartet and Adrienne Kim, The Bells Bow Down

New Music in today's world as we know needn't follow slavishly some path marked out in, say, 1920. We may inevitably be tied to a rolling path from the past but we also put the movement into the trajectory by following what we hear today, individually and collectively. That certainly applies to Finnish-American composer Ilari Kaila (b 1978) and the album of his chamber music as performed by the Aizuri Quartet and Adrienne Kim, The Bells Bow Down (Innova 036).

Six works grace the album. And each one has a distinctive, personal character. There is a special sonance halfway between a sort of folkish diatonicism and some form of Radical Tonality. Gordon Kerry in the liners explains as aspect of the personal ways of the composer. "Much of his work is shaped by extra-musical stimulus: his grief for a lost friend, visual and aural images celebrating the natural world, a love of the (sometimes multilingual) punning title." And perhaps most importantly out of that impetus there is an originality of musical language that somewhat paradoxically sounds and feels natural, quasi-organic.

Kaila after graduating from SUNY Stonybrook with a PhD in composition in 2011 taught at Columbia University and was in residence as a teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic. He is now stationed in Hong Kong where he is composer-in-residence at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The Aizuri Quartet and pianist Adrienne Kim play the music as if they were born to it and perhaps in the end they truly have been.

All six compositions are in their own way gems. The folk-fiddling traces of the quartet "Jouhet" (2017) gives us a beautiful sort of jolt. The opening archaic harmonic sequencing of the title work "The Bells Bow Down" (2006) for quartet and piano leads to a stunning piano expression that the quartet responds to and we revel in some of the most memorable music of all of it, dedicated to the memory of pianist Hanna Sarvala.

From there we have the varied but no less striking "Cameo" (2015 for flute, viola and piano, "Hum and Drum" (2017) for cello and piano, "Wisteria" (2003) for the string quartet, and not the least, the mesmerizing five-part piano work "Taonta" (2016).

As nearly all TV ads have it lately, "in trying times like these" bla bla bla. Truly though, this Ilani Kaila collection has the human touch, has some kind of hopeful quality to it, and reminds us if we need to be reminded that music has healing powers. So in that way it is most timely and most timeless at once. I do recommend this one strongly for the paradoxically rugged yet delicate lyricism. It bears up under repeated scrutiny and after a few listens seems like a friend. Kaila is a musical poet, a definite talent out there. This would I hope be as happy a discovery for you as it has been for me. Listen closely if you can. It's well worth your time.