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Friday, September 25, 2020

Ives, Hauer, Stravinsky, Pepples, Satie, In Memoriam Paul Zukofsky; Aaron Likness, Andrew Zhou, Pianos


The virtual menagerie of musical fare that becomes available to a music reviewer like myself is in the times we now occupy not as near limitless as it perhaps once was. It is a matter of the Pandemic and the economic vagaries along with a music world that must adjust to a different situation and we do not necessarily know how that will end up of course. So all the more reason to take note and perk up when something quite excellent comes your way.

I must say that has happened with a new and very absorbing release In Memoriam Paul Zukovsky (CP2 128). It is a recording of the repertoire chosen by Paul Zukovsky for his last concert program at SUNY, featuring the twin pianos of Aaron Likness and Andrew Zhou. The concert was given the title "Mechanistic Music" and understandably that is key but with room for contemplation, as Maestro Zukofsky made us think and so here too for his parting gesture.

It all began when Paul Zukovsky became interested in the two-piano Craig Pepples composition "Monkeys at Play" (2013) and sent it to pianist Ursula Oppens who in turn suggested he introduce it to the piano duo of Aaron Likness and Andrew Zhou. And so began the process of formulating the program represented by this release and its general mood.

The Peeples work is given its world premiere recorded performance here and a fine thing it is. There is a wonderfully abstract mechanistic mood as we might expect. It is charming in its delightfully rugged, jagged presentation throughout its 20-minute sounding. It is delightfully brittle and the duo brings out its exploratory zeal just as we might hope for.

What ultimately became Zukofsky's  2017 memorial program gradually took shape as Zukovsky entered a last terminal stage of ill health. So the recording represents the final choices, which includes the rather obscure but no less absorbing "Zwolftonspiel" (1956) by Josef Matthias Hauer, here in its first recording.

Especially welcome is the Ives not well-known but no less wonderful "Impressions of the St. Gaudens in Boston Common" (1915) for a single piano (for the recording, Likness). There is the wonderfully mysterious Ives here and then a vague, poetic periodicity that we can feel as mechanistic, atypically so because Ives is Ives always. Beautiful music!

The wonderful Stravinsky 1944 "Sonata for Two Pianos" sounds as fresh as ever in the duo's hands. It is a vital reading and a major gem in the program.

And we conclude on a genuinely robotic yet most lively version of Milhaud's two-piano arrangement of Satie's "Cinema" From Relache (1924). We revel in this wonderfully toy-ful, playful reading that rivals the very best.

The subtlety of what Zukofsky groups together under "mechanistic" makes for something to contemplate. The Satie and Pepples are rather more overtly mechanistic than the Hauer, Ives, or Stravinsky. It is no doubt much to do with rhythmic density, and with Satie, repetition, but the Likness and Zhou dynamism and insistently urgent drive make it all a beautiful thing, The gleam of the shiny futuristic machines are not entirely about predictability, surely, but the presence of some future present presence as much as anything. The prescience of the earlier composers and the futurist nod of the later ones come together to make us think, to make us smile, to resurge through our aural senses with a considerable pleasure, all that.

Highly recommended.

Friday, September 18, 2020

John Luther Adams, Lines Made By Walking, JACK Quartet


John Luther Adams over time has impressed me as one of the singular voices, one of the true originals in so-called Minimalism and Radical Tonality today. The wonderfully accomplished JACK Quartet expands our grasp of the composer with a program of two string quartets on Lines Made By Walking (Cold Blue C80058). Featured are two recent works, the title work from 2019 and "untouched" from 2016.

The subtle beauty of these Adams works are in the way they self-create themselves. not through mesmerizing or trance inducing but rather creating clockwork overlaps that serve to create mobiles in sound--a sort of geographics of aural space for the title cut and a lingering intervalic immersion in fundamentals that point to a timeless origin in "untouched." As with the best Adams works there is a pronounced organic natural ambiance to be savored and the JACK Quartet show us they know how to project the whole in a magically living resonance or sonic luminescence and transcendence.

It is another very worthy Cold Blue release, a triumph of great performances and cutting-edge composition. If you want to get a handle on what is very new in New Music out there it is a CD you'll want to have and hear in depth. Kudos!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

PEP, Piano and Erhu Project, Volume Three, Nicole Ge Li and Corey Hamm


A most unusual and rewarding Vancouver-based duo called PEP, or The Piano and Erhu Project, returns for a Volume Three (DMR Discs TK 474). It is the potent and accomplished pairing of Nicole Ge Li on the traditional Chinese bowed erhu and Corey Hamm on piano. Their artistry is nothing short of superb and the choice of works genuinely inspired.

Something remarkable is the intensive focus mostly on Western Modern Classical possibilities, much of it in the realm of the new. 

There are a number of specially commissioned works. They are notable and memorable. Gao Ping's six movement "Ho Yan" from 2017 has tremendous rhythmic vitality and a very attractive and dramatic Chinese-meets-Modern-Classical orientation. The piano is partly prepared and at times keys are dampened to get a percussive frisson going that is taken up in turn dramatically by Nicole Ge Li, Other movements have an expressive pungency, rhapsodic heat and.or a lyrical corner that contrast well as a sequence. 

Another high point of the commissions is the Michael Finnissy "Sorrow and its Beauty," which soars meditatively and with a probing poignancy. It haunts and the erhu tone color shines with luminescence thanks to Nicole's expressive brilliance.

Marc Mellits' "Mechanically Separated Chicken Parts" is a rousing minimalist oriented romp that invigorates as it moves with a most pleasing zeal.

Chatman's "Remember Me Forever" combines stunning prepared piano sonics with a very rich-toned erhu part that straddles global possibilities with poetic genuineness.

The program reaches its penultimate stage with Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei's grandson) and a nicely constructed and songfully projective "Three Pieces for Erhu and Piano" (2015). Lyrical passages contrast with rhythmically energetic sojourns that put the duo through its paces ravishingly.

A fantastic way to end is with Sergei Prokofiev's erhu-piano rendition of his Scherzo from the "Sonata for Flute" (later he did a version for violin and piano). The intricate solo part and beautifully energized piano seconding come through remarkably well and confirm Nicole Se Li as a true world-class virtuoso and Corey Hamm as a worthy counterpart. This is excitement made vitally alive!

The program chimes in as a whole most remarkably. I will leave it to you to explore the pieces not mentioned here--another one by Marc Mellits, a Samuel Satoh, a Lucas Dickle, all worth your time surely and good examples of the Tonal Modern world that is part of the current scene. Nicole Ge Li and Corey Hamm make a vivid impression as they impress with their high artistry from first to last.

It is in every way a superior program and a marvelous showcase for the artists and the works the two make their own. It is as fine a meeting of East and West these days as you might hear, really a landmark disk. Li and Hamm give notice--they are not to be missed. Kudos!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Larry Polansky, These are the Generations

It is sometimes easy to forget but every composer's oeuvre in an avid listener's cycle came to present itself to her/him more or less one or two works at a time. Each piece of one's avid listening is a kind of praxis that maintains itself by the experience of hearing and re-hearing. So with Larry Polansky (b. 1954) for me. If you type his name in the blog search box above you will see I have previously heard and reviewed two volumes of his music on these pages. I liked them much. They were post-Minimal works in a Radical Tonality vein, well done.

I am happy to report a new volume just out, These are the Generations (New World 80819-2), a furtherance of the Polansky opus with six works that span the period 1985 (initial version of two works) through to 2019. Not all, but many are mainly diatonic and they also occupy a sort of post-ambient space, too.

The title work "Eleh Tol'd'ot (These are the generations..)" (985/2017) is one of the more remarkable of all the works here. It is a most pleasingly elaborate sonance for four marimbas.

My personal favorite, "22 Sounds" for percussion quartet is a wonderfully contrapuntal carpet for tuned drums, metallic instruments, etc. It gives us endlessly engaged, continual event making and I am happy to put it on often right now.

The "five songs for kate and vanessa" (2019) is a lyrical foray of a touching tonal ritual essence for Kate Stenberg on violin, Vanessa Ruorolo on cello and for two of the five movements, Amy Beal on piano. Each movement occupies its own space--either somewhat startlingly (with "corner cows" and its folk lyric) or as slowly and painfully beautiful (as in "courante"). The finale, a timeless folkish "jig" gives us something to reflect upon as the concluding movement.

I will forgo any more of the blow-by-blow descriptions of every work because they each form wholes that have a specially personal quality--and they are of course best experienced as music. I've given you an idea so you might know what to expect and that I hope is sufficient.

Polansky refuses to be pigeonholed in this program. Every work follows its own muse. The sum total makes for a fine listening experience indeed. I recommend this by all means.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Gyorgi Ligeti, Desordre, Etudes Pour Piano, Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, Eric Huebner

Desordre is the title given to pianist Eric Huebner's  album of Ligeti works (New Focus Recordings FCR 269). So then, "disorder."  It's all about several multi-part works that mark Ligeti's early '80s change in stylistic focus. The liner notes to the current album describe how Ligeti had tried to return to Hungary from exile and establish himself as a composer rooted in Hungarian identity.

When that did not take he changed his aims decidedly with the 1982 "Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano,"  which went in a sort of deliberate multi-directionality that included a re-thinking of Romanticism to suit Ligeti's intentional  diffuseness, suggested at first blush with the 19th century poet Eichendorff and the sounding of a natural horn from a mysterious fairytale of forest and storybook expression. It related to Ligeti's experience of hearing the alpenhorn in the mountains of his childhood. It captured a feeling of homesickness, suggest the liners,  more so than one of national pride or feeling for the homeland, instead a feeling more of displacement, perhaps.

The chronologically following two books of "Etudes Pour Piano" in turn were inspired by the piano works of Chopin, Scarlatti, Schumann and Debussy. It was from the pianistic and virtuoso qualities of their concepts of playing that Ligeti found new inspiration, something that these magnificent Etudes reformulate in their own very original way.

And so we have in this program very poetic and pristinely clear performances of some extraordinarily complex and widely influenced works. The liners mention in addition to what I've brought up above the additional influences of Eastern European folk, plus Jazz harmonic and piano stylistic aspects from Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. Finally we feel the weight of sensory-motor mechanics as a nexus of piano and pianist with compositional inerventions that heighten drama and create a marvelous sense of motility that has its own original kind oi virtuosity and still sounds completely Modern in the capital /M/ way.

Pianist Eric Huebner and his associates for the trio--Yuki Numata Resnick on violin and Adam Unsworth on horn--all furnish the realization of this extraordinary music with a sure sense of meaningful phrasing, of a gestalt wholeness that makes perfect sense of the totality of expression.

Very recommended.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Quinsin Nachoff, Pivotal Arc, Nathalie Bonin, Molinari String Quartet

Musical creativity when going right is like a liquid that flows outward and downward from a starting point, filling in where there is space for it. So that is the case for the music of Quinsin Nachoff on his recent album Pivotal Arc (Whirlwind Recordings WR4761). It features three compositions that dwell nicely in the interstices between Progressive Jazz and New Music.Classical. What makes it especially worthwhile is the easy-going compatibility between the two forms, mediated by a kind of folk-world melodic flow and a creative immediacy that marks it as something new.

Quinsin plays a very limber and lively tenor sax which we hear most winningly on the title work. That piece also gives productive solo time to bassist Mark Helias and drummer Satoshi Takeishi, and so also vibraphonist Michael Davidson. All this is set against some very adventuresome writing for a big band/chamber orchestra of winds and strings conducted by JC Sanford.

The big band gets into a folk dance, Piazzola-like idiom and also a sort of advanced straight post-funk in a Dave Holland or M-Based related furtherance that allows violinist Nathalie Bonin to shine forth in a nicely wrought solo part. Beautiful stuff! The middle movement is a lovely landscape that the composer notes rightly is "where Berg meets Ellington!"

Finally we get an edgy String Quartet played with precision and enthusiasm by the Molinari String Quartet.

What startles then pleases is the breadth of absorption of multi-stylistic strands into a convincing series of wholes. There is a fully "authentic" and uncompromising nexus of both styles and performances are top notch. And the end results are fully original and well worth repeated hearings.

It is one of the best examples of what used to be called "Third Stream" that I've heard in a long while. Kudos to all involved!

Ian Venables, Requiem, Gloucester Cathedral Choir, Jonathan Hope, Adrian Partington

Living composer Ian Venables composed his Requiem (Somm Recordings 0618) in several stages between 2017 and 2018, initially at the request of his friends Bryce and Cynthia Somerville to commemorate their late mother Doreen. It was performed by the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral under Music Director Adrian Partington. The world premiere recording that we consider here features the same choir and director in a nicely recorded and moving performance.

The work shows a natural sympathy towards the satb sound possibilities and a general diatonic, lyrical manner which is well constructed and appealing. Organist Jonathan Hope realizes the instrumental part with subtlety and warmth  This is music that revels in consonance and concordance--yet it does not strike one as particularly backward looking.

As a bonus there are four additional short sacred choral works that supplement the program and further our ear pleasure--compositions by John Sanders (1933-2003), John Joubert (1927-2019), Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) (edited by Venables) and a final Venables capstone work that springs forward rhythmically and sends us off in happy ways..

This is a beautifully performed program. Kudos to the soloists and choir, kudos to the director, to the organist, to all involved. It is not a program of ultra-Modern things. Nor is it a deliberate stepping back. It is the very successful determination to craft a straightforward lyrical consonance that stands on its own feet and can take us on flights to musically memorable and uplifting heights.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Edward Smaldone, Once and Again

New Focus Recordings continues its vital series of Contemporary Modern  music with a volume of the music of Edward Smaldone, Once and Again (New Focus FCR258). The program focuses on five configurations in five compositions written between 1986 and 2014, all distinctively High Modern and showing great craftsmanship and consistent inventive knack. There is a twofold impetus behind this music as the press sheet that came with my copy discusses--that is, an aesthetic balance between "'classical' values of motivic and formal cohesion and development" as contrasted with "'modernist' values of capturing an improvisatory sensibility, asymmetry, and irregularity." A highly chromatic vocabulary, and irregular rhythmic-melodic articulation contrast with the sometimes use of dance rhythms and germinal motivic unfolding for a refreshing vivacity in-the-moment.

Two multi-movement vocal cycles grace the program and provide some key signposts to the musical direction. The declamatorily dramatic "Cantare di Amore" (2009) gives soprano Tony Arnold a chance to shine and gets memorable instrumental underpinning from harp and flute. The narrative flow of the five-part "Letters from Home" (2000/2007/2014) allows soprano Susan Narucki detailed expressive possibilities and gets very appealing instrumental underscoring for flute, clarinet and piano.

"Duke/Monk" (2011) pays tribute to two cornerstone Jazz brilliances with two very lively and expressive spaces for clarinet and piano. They melodically encompass a wide range of chromatic possibilities yet have a hovercraft steadiness around key centers that combine with a sort of soulful exuberance--which in turn works out and maintains a steady-state original expressivity.

The "Double Duo" (1987/2006) expands and extends a complex articulation of chromatic Modernist elevations for flute, clarinet, violin and cello--with eight minutes of complex and well weathered singularity..

The program ends with the chamber string orchestra work "Sinfonia." It is a delightfully thickened, ever varying multi-strand presentation of lasting interest and a great way to conclude.

To live with this music for a week or so is to increasingly open oneself to a series of musical dialogues that sound more and more articulate as one rehears, sound more and more right. Happily recommended.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Tarik O'Regan, All Thing Common, Robert Istad Conducts Pacific Chorale and Salastina

The choral music of Tarik O'Regan has something timeless about it, obliquely reaching back into sacred Western traditions as reference points yet making a joyfully contemporary noise of it all, not sounding like an Arvo Part so much as sharing an old-in-new synthetic view in its own way original and lyrical, Occident to quasi-Orient? West to East?

From the opening strains of the title work "All Things Common" (2017) we hear a rooted euphonious outreaching both highly lyrical and ultimately at key moments redolent with a spinning circularity and modality that marks it all as of our current time without sacrificing the linearity of sacred vocal tradition from the Gregorian period onward.

Seven works in all grace the program (Yarlung Records YAR02592), the centerpiece being the world premier recording of the specially commissioned "Facing West." All show how the Pacific Chorale and (as needed) the string quintet Salastina under conductor Robert Istad seem temperamentally suited in a near ideal way to the subtle lyric expression of the music.

The old-in-new aspect of O'Regan is especially prominent in the mass-chant evolution of "Magnificat & Nunc Dimitis: Variations for Choir" of 2001. From there the compositions move directionally away from such things to a tonal-rituality that is originally contentful  "The Ecstacies Above" (2006) has dramatic push and pull and works itself out intricately between choral and string voices. The musical syntax follows a motival sequence with variations around and upon it.

"I Listen to the Stillness of You" (2016) is a portion of "Mass Observation. " It sends us off with a beautifully melodic caress of lyrical sound.

The sum total of this inclusive O'Regan program is a significant mix of choral gems spanning the millennium to now. Each work stands out on its own and ultimately Istad and the Pacific Chorale paint a beautifully full picture of the composer and his lucid beauty of idea and form. I've listened countless times and each hearing opens out new vistas, so I have no doubt on this one. Enthusiastically recommended.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Harold Shapero, Orchestral Works, Vivian Choi, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

Our musical categories in the end are only a shorthand indicator of what a particular piece of music might sound like. So to say that Harold Shapero (1920-2013) was a Neo-Classical exponent it only indicates loosely that he had a formal affinity with the structural aspects of Mozart and Beethoven but that his Modernist slant to it was all his own. We hear that most productively on a new program, a mini-retrospective of his Orchestral Works (BMOP Sound 1072), as performed quite ably and effectively by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose, with Vivian Choi handling the solo piano parts in a masterly fashion.

He developed a closeness to Leonard Bernstein while attending Harvard, and also studied with an impressive cast of greats--Piston, Hindemith, Copland and Stravinsky, He especially emphasized later in life how important to him was the influence and inspiration of the great Nadia Boulanger.

And so we get an excellent sampling of some five Shapero works in all. There is a very stately, majestic quality to the "Sinfonia in D Minor" (1948), the "Credo for Orchestra" (1959) and a similar framework as a launching pad for the multi-movement "Partita in C for Piano and Small Orchestra" (1960). The Partita covers a good deal of ground in ways distinctive and un-derivative. The musical syntax has a logic and elegance that carries the listening self over a great span of related possibilities and intrinsically fascinating terrain. In the process there are vivid orchestrational shades that blend well together and keep the ears focused and interested.

The Jazz-situated "On Green Mountain for Jazz Ensemble" (1957) is a breath of fresh air, a memorably upbeat paean that holds together well no matter how many listens.

The concluding "Serenade in D for String Orchestra" (1945) has lyrical strength and playful inventiveness with something of a folk-like expressiveness that gives us a heartening send-off. Shapero manages to create a serenade that convincingly updates a singing Mozartian earthiness while belonging thoroughly to the contemporary world he most definitely participated in.

In the end this is a valuable exploration of a composer we need to recognize and rehear. Rose and BMOP give us ideal readings of these five worthy pieces. I highly recommend this one for anyone interested in 20th century US Modern orchestral. It is a delight!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Pacifica Quartet, Contemporary Voices, Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Under the sun there will always be new music, or at least we hope. No matter the difficulty of the times and challenges we all face. So today we contemplate such a thing, a recent program of three landmark chamber works of true substance and style, all by women composers. It's the Pacifica Quartet and their CD entitled Contemporary Voices (Cedille Records 90000 196). Interestingly all three composers on the program are Pulitizer Prize winners. Most regular readers of this blogspace will be familiar with the names--Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. And no doubt you've heard at least some of the music. 

As it so happens these are cornerstone contributions to the Modern American chamber scene. Each work brims over with originality and composer-craft brilliance. Whether you contemplate Ran's "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory--String Quartet No. 3" (in its world premiere recording)  Higdon's "Voices" Quartet, or Zwilich's "Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet" (with the lovely addition of Otis Murphy on alto saxophone), there is a wealth of excellent music that does not stand pat but rather unceasingly moves things forward without a set formula or a predictable outcome.

Shulamit Ran got to know and appreciate the Pacifica Quartet while they were in residence at the University of Chicago, 1999-2016. Shulamit in that period was actively a professor of composition there (she is now Professor Emeritus). "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory--String Quartet No 3" was written expressively for the quartet. It centers around paying homage to artists who created during the Holocaust, especially the painter Felix Nussbaum, who was martyred at Auschwitz in 1944. The four movements explore deeply somber beholdings, bleak memories. survival of the artworks as transcendance and a refusal to go down without an urgently creative flourish. The music has tenderness, tensile strength and dissonance as appropriate and tributary complexities of form.

Jennifer Higdon's three movement "Voices" has a great deal of breathtaking Modernist animation it its opening "Blitz" movement, introspective expressionist interest in its inner "Soft Enlacing" movement, 
And  in its finale movement "Grace" there is a very moving constancy of heightened emotive and aural vibrancy.

The presence of Otis Murphy on alto saxophone and the singularity of his part on Ellen Taafe Zwilich's "Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet" makes for a lively contrast in the program. The three movements work together in variously exciting ways to underpin a sometimes jazz-inflicted and always extraordinarily interesting series of musical discourses dialogic and endlessly fascinating.

Both Maestro Murphy and the Pacifica Quartet play as if they were born to this music, which they certainly are in their idiomatically superlative talent and their insight into this most latest of Modernisms. Three local women composers of utmost eloquence carry forth on this disk. The results are most happy indeed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Elgar, Violin Concerto, Stenhammer, Two Sentimental Romances, Triin Ruubel, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi

The music of Edward Elgar (1857-1934) covers a good deal of ground. Of course there is a lot more depth and structured flow than one hears in his "Pomp and Circumstances" music, and though he flourished in England in the Victorian period, his music is considerably more complicated and wide-ranging in its moodiness and expressiveness than that term "Victorian" might imply. If he indeed is in many ways the father of the English Modern Renaissance of composers it is primarily for his consistent excellence than necessarily  for a definitive set of stylistic roots, though  there is an aspect aspect of that which one might trace through what followed, even if the subsequent developments were perhaps more overtly innovative for the times than that they were extraordinarily beholden to him.

A major work that I have previously heard far too little is his Violin Concerto. Violinist Triin Ruubel, conductor Neeme Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra  (SCCD016) give us a detailed and vibrant reading of the Concerto plus a bonus from Swedish Romantic Wilhelm Stenhammer (1871-1927) and his Two Sentimental Romances.

The three movement Elgar has a fertile thematic abundance, a genuine solo violin personality and orchestral-orchestrational luxuriance that has a deeply Romantic cast yet as we come to expect of much of Elgar's orchestral oeuvre a distinctive originality unique to the English master and at least for me with an added enlivenment not at first easy to put into words. There are in the developmental sections especially a particular working out, almost a sturm und drang conflicting of motifs put in poetic tonal terms. There is a weightiness to Elgar that is not the weightiness of a Wagner nor a Bruckner, rather a Romanticism transcendent and highly personal.

Elgar completed the work in 1910. The three movements on the current recording clock in at nearly 50 minutes for one of his longest works and for its devilishly complex solo part one of the most demanding of such works. The long and winding road that the music takes requires a patient concentration from the listener but pays off with a rather labyrinthine epic fullness with which it is surely gratifying to become familiar and intimate.

Triin Ruubel's performance here is ecstatically lyrical and consistently moving. Her interactions with the ever shifting orchestral carpeting so deftly and poetically provided by Maestro Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is something very special, subtle yet impassioned, extraordinarily well-paced and endlessly fascinating to experience.

The contrastingly brief ten minutes of Wilhelm Stenhammer's "Two Sentimental Romances" gives us a lyrical breath of fresh air after the Mandarin complexities of the Elgar. It may not precisely change your view of the later Romantic possibilities for violin and orchestra, but it is quite uplifting and appealing regardless.

The performances are top-notch and the music pretty essential. Most definitely recommended.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Alexander Woods, Refractions, Music for Violin and Piano by Asplund, Dvorak, Mozart, Thornock

Violinist Alexander Wood shows us his versatility and prowess on the recent four-work program Refraction: Music for Violin and Piano (MSR Classics 1689). He has his considerable way with a memorable Classical work (Mozart's "Violin Sonata No. 26"), a somewhat neglected 19th century Romantic gem (Dvorak's "Four Romantic Pieces") and two Contemporary Modern works of note (Christian Asplund's "One Eternal Round" and Neil Thornock's "A Crust of Azure").

Alexander gets some beautiful piano support and artistry by Rex Woods. Note too that Aubrey Smith Woods plays a nicely forward second violin on "One Eternal Round."

Regardless of the period and province of the four works, Alexander Woods shows us just how beautiful his tone is, sweetly singing but differentiated from a Heifetz by its relative extroversion and kinetic robustness. That is just to say of course that Heifetz is another kind of beautiful.

On Mozart's "Violin Sonata No. 26" we get some very impeccable phrasing (from the violin and the piano). I am not that familiar with this sonata but no matter because the performance is really celestial. The Andantino (second movement) has a touching tenderness about it that helps put this forward as high above the norm.

Neil Thornock (b. 1977) gives us a very sophisticated and dynamic "A Crust of Azure" for violin and piano. The violin part makes considerable demands on Alexander yet he comes through with power, sweetness and a rather formidable sense of dash. There is an exotically Eastern caste to the music often enough, perhaps slightly Slavic, Gypsy-Romanian, all with a definite Modern twist to the tonality. It is a finely crafted and inspired work played to a "tee."

The violin duet "One Eternal Round" by Christian Asplund gives us a quasi-Minimal concentrism that is moving to experience; and then the Dvorak has a real presence in this reading, once again with that Eastern European flourish that Alexander handles so deftly.

Alexander Woods is a world-class talent, brilliant to hear and rehear. The program does not flag, keeps uncovering new accomplishments in writing and playing! I recommend this one gladly.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Jonathan Leshnoff, String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4, Four Dances, Carpe Diem String Quartet

American Modern Tonal stylist Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) appears before us with the fine Carpe Diem String Quartet playing his String Quartet No. 3, String Quartet No. 4 and Four Dances (MSR Classics MS1765). Leshnoff I was happy to come across on a volume of his orchestral work by the Nashville Symphony under the direction of Roberto Guerrero on July 12 of last year (see chronological index for that post).

These string quartet works are, understandably, more intimate and perhaps more contemplative and absorbed than the more extroverted orchestral works on the Nashville disk. There is something decidedly Eastern European sounding about much of this--a sort of post-Bartokian, maybe post-Shoskatovichian cast, decidedly Modern enough and motor-sensory at times in its dynamic forward drive. Quartet No 3's finale is a case in point, quite exciting to hear as performed on this program by the Carpe Diem unit. Or check out the second movement of Quartet No. 4 for another kinetic explosion of high interest. Naturally there are contrasting expressions that spell the pace nicely, for example in  the third movement of Quartet No. 4.

It is all rather deep in the tradition of the string quartet's post-Beethoven history of increased reflectivity. In that way Leshnoff  updates that depth with some originality and great musical intelligence. Rather ravishing music, in an excellent reading. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Leipzig Circle, Vol. II, Chamber Music by Felix Mendelssohn, Clara and Robert Schumann, London Bridge Trio

I missed Vol. I of The Leipzig Circle. And I might well have missed Vol. II (SOMM Recordings SOMM CD 0619) if it wasn't that my status as a reviewer meant that it was available to me. I am glad of that. All three works are Piano Trios--No. 1 in D minor by Felix Mendelssohn, a sole trio in G minor by Clara Schumann, and No. 2 in F major by Robert Schumann. The London Bridge Trio (David Adams, violin, Daniel Tong, piano, and Kate Gould, cello) do an excellent job on the performance end, giving us a feelingly soaring reading that does not try to gain hearts-on-sleeves extremes, rather providing just enough emotive rubato to sound well as a present-day performance viewpoint.

Leipzig was renowned as the city where Bach presided for so many years over the Thomaskirche. It also had gained great fame for its superb Gewandhous Orchestra. And of course there are these illustrious musical voices of their time. All three works have a remarkable Romantic cantabile rhapsodishness. The three works are as alike to one another as they are different.

The Mendelssohn has a typically jaunty allegro finale and one of his brightly bubbling scherzo movements.

Clara's Piano Trio turns out to be very good, inventive, a welcome addition to the chamber music of the period and the locality of Leipzig. It rivals Robert's and Felix's effusive lyricism with its own spin on the Romantic piano trio.

The Robert Schumann will probably be familiar to many readers. It is typically fertile with thematic poignancy and developmental heft.

All-in-all this is a very worthy listen, a Romantic Chamber anthology that brightens your day when you are in the mood. Good show!

Friday, July 24, 2020

Schubert, String Trio in B flat major, String Quintet in C major, Aviv Quartet, Amit Peled

If you listen to Schubert's Rondo from his String Trio in B flat major, D. 581 (1817) you experience a kind of timeless brilliance only a few composers can give us, the uniquely folksy earthiness of a higher order that the then-only-20-year-old Austrian Viennese master was already quite capable of. But then we can also revel in the full maturity of his String Quintet in C major, Op. 163, completed in 1828, in the year of his death. All this you can appreciate in a very  articulate reading as played by the Aviv Quartet with the addition of virtuoso Amit Peled on a second cello for the Quintet (Naxos 8.573891).

I've lived with the Quintet since my Chicago days, through an LP that was a birthday present for self. Some nearly 40 years later I am happy to hear another version, this one capturing both heroism and a slight whimsicality when needed. It remains a remarkable work, filled with more nearly timeless unspinning of melodic poignancy, endlessly inventive. To create such profound music without even reaching age 35 is as astonishing now as it was for me 40 years ago. Even if we are lucky to have a life span three times his, which is of course as rare now as ever, even then who could match the profundity and depth of his music?

Amit Peled is some cellist and he makes magic on this version of the Quintet. But then the Aviv Quartet sounds excellent as well. This CD coupling serves up some prime younger Schubert that is heard less than it should be, and then gives you the wonderful Quintet in all its memorable poetic greatness. Just listen to their fiery version of the Scherzo Presto and you'll no doubt "get it!" Bravo!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Komitas, Divine Liturgy, Arr. Vache Sharafyan, Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Klava

Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) was as many will know one of the leading lights of Armenian Classical music, the founder in many ways of the Armenian Nationalist school of composers. On the 150th anniversary of his birth the mixed Latvian Radio Choir performed Vache Sharafyan's satb arrangement of the monumental Diving Liturgy conducted by Sigvards Klava. The choir went on to painstakingly record the full version (Delos DE 3590) which we consider today.

The results are all one might hope for, both in its own way in terms of Orthodox sacred music and Armenian. Sadly it was completed right before the Turkish genocide began in 1915. Komitas survived yet lived as a broken man for the last 20 years in a Paris asylum.

The performance winds along nearly timelessly as the nearly 80 minutes of the full score makes for an ideal vehicle for the Latvian Choir and soloists tenor Armen Badalyan and bass voice Hovhannes Nersesyan.

Anyone devoted to Armenian classical strains and anyone interested in Eastern Orthodox sacred music will no doubt take readily to both the score and the performance. A must for Komitas lovers.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Stjepan Hauser, Classic Hauser, London Symphony Orchestra

If what gets covered in these blog pages tends to be somewhat more esoteric than, for example,  today's selection, it is never an absolute thing in my mind. My exploration of some of the most advanced paths of New Music does not stop me from discussing something fashioned for a wider, more general audience if it seems good to me.

So we have an album today showcasing cellist Stjepan Hauser, entitled simply Classic Hauser (SONY Classics I9075988532). The emphasis on the 16 selections is on ravishing melodies from mostly very well-known works, arranged for cello and orchestra. And whether you are sheltering during the COVID Pandemic or at a place where you can be passing daily through the workaday scene this album surely can give you a little respite from an anxious world.

The emphasis is on Hauser's extraordinarily beautiful tone, impassioned, a moderate vibrato much of the time, soaring atop the orchestra, impeccably phrased, with a very pronounced balance and poise. Needless to say the London Symphony Orchestra rises to the occasion as well, giving Hauser a lovely carpet of symphonic tone while he hovers consistently above.

If you want to sample just one thing here to start, his version of the sadly tender Samuel Barber "Adagio" is as magical and as dreamy as can be. Perfect.

Hauser hails from Croatia and is known of course for his solo work,  his work with the Greenwich Trio, as well as his presence as half of 2Cellos with Luka Sulic. He tackles crossover material with a relish that has introduced him to  non-Classical audiences around the world.

But as Classic Hauser so ravishingly shows us, it is with a soaring classical melody that he shines forth the most brightly. Listen to the cello-orchestral arrangement of part of Mozart's "Concerto for Clarinet" and you'll no doubt revel in the lyric passion he so expressively conveys to us. Yiruma's "River Flows in You" has a breathtaking anthemic treatment here, for those who recognize the handsomely emotive theme, or even if not. Last's "The Lonely Shepherd" from KillBill positively glows too. And in the end all thoughts of "purism" get thrown to the winds if you can manage that. Then the album acts as a reminder that all that is "popular" is not the same, that the right project can appeal to a large number of people and still have a supreme artistry about it,. Listen to the new version of the adagio from Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 21." Well!

After a bunch of listens I must say this program wears well and no doubt will appeal to just about anyone you might put it on for. You could of course do that. Or just listen for yourself.

It no doubt is selling well. Yet it convinces in its own way, too! I am glad for the artist.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

William Dawson, Negro Folk Symphony, Ulysses Kay, Fantasy Variations, Umbrian Scene, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Fagen

A welcome disk of orchestral works by African-American composers from the last century has made a timely appearance. We get three works as played with spirit by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Arthur Fagen (Naxos 8.559870). They are works that do deserve our attention. There is William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) and his "Negro Folk Symphony" (c. 1932-34, rev. 1952) and also Ulysses Simpson Kay (1917-1995) and his "Fantasy Variations" (1963) and his "Umbrian Scene" (1963).

As the back cover to the CD notes the Dawson Symphony's three movements are in the form of continuous variations on a number of spirituals. It was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia in 1934 and took on final form in its 1952 revision heard here. There is a web of interconnections and endless permutations on the spiritual tonality and its implications. One occasionally hears a motivic development that reminds of Dvorak's "New World" and that is only natural of course given its enormous stature in the day especially. It is only a touchstone relationship however. The Dawson work itself stands proudly enough and statue-esquely enough on its own terms, its own feet.

And indeed after a number of listens the music comes forth as a tabula rasa when all is said and done. There is plenty to follow with interest, surprises, reaffirmations and confirmations of a rooted folkway treated with imaginative content and development and a sure sense of orchestral completeness. Hearing this now after so much has gone down the pike from 1932 to 2020 means that we do not need to trace its influence or lack thereof on what came after. That no longer matters so much is the presence of music we can luxuriate within.

The two Ulysses Kay compositions are worthy companions to the symphony. "Fantasy Variations" (1963) has a declamatory brilliance and a good amount of harmonic advancement to make it a part of the Modernity that was so important then. And there is a fluidity of expression that builds its home in our ears so that we might partake of the experience increasingly and rewardingly.

His "Umbrian Scene" (1963) as the jewel box copy notes is "lean and sober." It is poetic and wonderfully serious, an Occam's Razor of spareness which turns out is a rather nice way to end the program, going then from full thematic abundance to a searching matter-of-fact set of wise erasures and the profound essence of that which remains--so expressively underscored.

So when all is said and done if you missed this CD and these works it might not alter your world that much. Nonetheless the music is carefully crafted and inspired. Dawson and Kay were key Afro-Americans on the Modern Classical scene of last century. For that reason alone it is worthwhile to check this music out. Happily recommended.

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!