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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Virgil Thomson, Portraits, Self-Portraits and Songs

 

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) never quite fit in with the usual categories of Modern music. He ordinarily was not particularly edgy in terms of tonality or rhythmic form; he was not a stereotypical Modernist in other words. There was often enough a disarmingly lyrical side to his music, a homespun quality as well. It may be sometimes a sort of allusion to Americana, like Ives and Copland but not sounding Ivesian or Coplandesque so much as expressing as he sometimes did the local, the familial, the everyday USA sort of feeling, the folk art feeling of a quilt or a sampler.. The newly re-released Northeastern Records early '90s albums Portraits and Self-Portraits and  Mostly About Love have some excellent examples of this sort of thing.  Both are happily back in print again as a 2-CD set Portraits, Self-Portraits and Songs (Everbest 1002 2-CD). 

The performances are quite accomplished and present solo and modest-sized chamber configurations that feature, variously, Anthony Tommasini on piano, Sharan Leventhal on violin,  Nancy Armstrong, soprano, and their "friends" as needed. The first volume features a wide swatch, as the title of course suggests, of Virgil's musical portraits of friends, colleagues and the composer himself. 

The works are relatively rare and in some cases these are the first recordings. The music is sometimes whimsical, filled with na├»ve and/or Neo-Classical elements, playful at times and memorably tuneful and at times with the charm of utter simplicity, other times more sophisticated. 

The vocal CD nicely projects soprano Nancy Armstrong and various other vocalists with mostly solo piano accompaniment for some choice works featuring the text-poetry of Gertrude Stein, Frank O'Hara, Shakespeare, etc.

Both volumes give us welcome works in vibrant performances, surely filling out with nicely done additions for the comprehensive Thomson enthusiast but also remaining of close interest for anyone who wants to follow and understand 20th century US styles and sub-styles. A very good re-release, timely and evergreen. Check it out by all means.

The Crossing, Rising with the Crossing, Donald Nally

 

The Crossing is a marvelous chamber choir and you probably know of them if you read these pages. I've covered a fair amount of their releases--they are to me a seminal outfit for the New Music today. They are superb. There's a new one that covers a great deal of ground, Rising w/ the Crossing (New Focus Recordings FCR281).


Featured are a pretty vast potpourri of some 12 short works, beautifully performed. We get two Early Music gems by Buxtehude that manage to sound like they fit in with the Post-Minimal, Radical Tonality gems on display here.

A very prescient opening work, "protect yourself from infection" (2019) is a text from the last Pandemic--the Great Influenza of 1918. A sung list of victims fallen in Philadelphia alternates with a prayer-like chant of preventive health advice from the time. What could be more relevant just now?

And then the nine additional contemporary works have lots to absorb and enjoy. Lang comes through with s couple further points of interest--via several movements from "National Anthems."

Then we get to experience some other choice works that fill out the program nicely, choral studies by Joby Talbot (2000), Erika Esenvalds (2016, 2013), Paul Fowler (2016), Alex Berko (2018), Ted Hearne (2016) and Santa Ratniece (2008). All of these have more or less in common the idea that repetition is not primary but more hooked into tan ambient sonority characteristic to the post-New-Age, so to speak. The Crossing are extraordinarily well-suited to this repertoire for their gorgeous timbral essence, so that everything works out for the very best and keeps listener interest focused and keen, or so I found anyway.

It is a good one for the season, but then for any season in the end. Good show!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Anna Clyne, Mythologies. BBC Symphony Orchestra


What, if there was an ideal example, would today's Modern Orchestral Mainstream be like? Does it make sense to try and pin such a thing down? There are so many shades of possibility these days that it may be nearly arbitrary to freeze the burgeoning creative tumlt, to boil it all down to just one thing. There are those composers who look way back and try to make it a part of now, those who look to the edge of the Modern, those joining onto what was once Avant Garde, those who try to keep creating some future specific utterances, etc.

Ideally one should listen to every unfamiliar new work with an open mind, without some attempt to pigeonhole it. I had friends, mostly now gone, who liked to try and tag a work as being "like" another work. But of course that does not mean that having drawn a line from the work to another that one can stop thinking about it. After all we are all in our musical lives the accumulation of every music we have ever heard and some we have not but that influenced some other music. So what, then?

All this is a prelude for a new orchestral offering I have been enjoying--Mythologies (Avie M2434) by Anna Clyne, a living composer (b. 1980) very much proceeding under her own original steam, judging from this one. It is music that is dramatic, tonal yet at times with a determined audacity and brash insistence. On the cover of the CD the style is described effectively. It reads "Clyne's music seems to disentangle older styles to spin new stories from their raw materials, her melodies distilled out of collective memory, yet distilled with the high-voltage energy of our overstimulated time." That certainly r9ngs true to me as I listen.

Five works grace the program, and each has something to say, depictive, expansive, perhaps in a mainstream of one at present? The twenty-minute Violin Concerto "the Seamstress" is a definite high point, with Jennifer Koh sympathetically taking on the solo part and the whole making for a very dramatic and memorable totality. The four other works--"Masquerade" (in its world premiere), "This Midnight Hour," "Night Ferry" and "<<rewind<<" are each worthy living, breathing embodiments of orchestral  expression today. Clyne is a master orchestrator and fashions from her fertile imagination multiple realms of compelling sound poetics.

Most certainly this grouping of works and their spirited readings by the BBC Philharmonic goes a long way to affirm Anna Clyne as a major voice of her generation. Anglophiles take note, or anyone seeking the new orchestral sensibilities out there.

This is a definite must for a nice slab of what is new and good. Do not miss it.




Thursday, December 10, 2020

Beth Levin, Hammerklavier Live, Levin Plays Handel, Eliasson, Beethoven

 

On September 6, 2017 I was happy to review a solo piano CD by Beth Levin here on this blog page. Some three years later now I report in on a new one. I have been listening happily to Hammerklavier Live (A.R. ARCD011), her latest effort. It is a worthwhile program of music with strong interpretations and an earnestly committed zest that marks it all as special.

Following the program sequence we first hear Handel's "Third Suite in D minor" from his BWV 428 "8 Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin." A singing tone and pronounced rubato gives the brilliant contrapuntal music a pianistic poeticism that works completely and satisfyingly.

We are then treated to something in the Modern zone--Anders Eliasson's "Carosello (Disegno No. 3 for Piano)" (2005). It spells the mood nicely with a continuation of the dynamic lining of phrase but this time giving out with a melo-harmonic currency, a present-day essence that refreshes as Ms. Levin gives us more of the vibrant expressivity that we initially interacted with in the Handel reading.

On from there is a most distinctive epic sprawl, Levin's dramatic reading of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier Sonata" (No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106). Of course the sonata is one of Beethoven's evergreen works, a breakthrough among breakthroughs and Ms. Levin gives it all the attention and enthusiastic focus it deserves. It is a fitting climax for a very worthy program and a performance, filled with fire and pianistic fireworks, a reading that has a timeless landmark feel but too also a very pointed Contemporary "you-are-there" quality. She gives us a uniquely vibrant reading rivaling some of the very best.

You come for the Beethoven and you get the very worthwhile bonus of the Handel and Eliasson. It is a CD to make the piano lover rejoice. Beth Levin is in her own way a master of living piano brilliance. Live with her Hammerklavier for a while and I think you will see what I mean.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Omar Daniel, Land's End Ensemble Performs the Chamber Music of Omar Daniel

 

Modern chamber music is like blue cheese? If I say that people are going to think it is rotten but that is not what I mean. Instead I would say that Modern chamber might at first seem difficult to like by some, but if they stick with it they might find they like it better than something else, that they can come to know it as a thing special, not quite like any other thing?? To complicate matters there are a wealth of  Modern composers, so much so that perhaps unlike blue cheese there are enough varieties that one might be overwhelmed?

Never fear! I am here to make sense out of it, some of it. And happily because I listen to everything people send and choose the best of it I can help with names and albums you might never know about otherwise, along of course with a few you might already know something about, perhaps even a great deal.

And so here is a Canadian composer, important because important and important because Canadian and we must pay attention to such things, to the music of a country that puts no small effort into cultivating such things. I speak today of one such Canadian, of Omar Daniel and the new album Land's End Ensemble plays the Chamber Music of Omar Daniel (Centrediscs CMCCD 28120).

So who is Omar Daniel? He is alive. He is around 60. He used to be enfant terrible of Canadian New Music? So the liners say anyway. I have no reason to doubt it.

The present disk showcases some four chamber works written between 1996 and  2018. They are mostly small ensemble works, filled with animation and a kind of flourish sometimes, some stridency certainly but harnessed to the outward expansion of gestures into the listener's space.

The "Duo for Violoncello and Piano" (2018) and the two Piano Trios (1999, 2015) all have a sort of rough hewn projection outwards that stands out as very Daniel-original and un-stinting. Each gives us a dramatic and  well thought-out piece that sounds increasingly more cogent the more one listens.

The two song cycle "Zwei Lieder Nach Rilke" (1996) is self-explanatory and not the least bit lesser an offering,. It stands out but with soprano bringing forward another sound and mood, as accompanied by a larger group of alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, two percussion, piano, violin, viola and cello. The instrumental  ensemble sets the mood and the soprano expresses it directly.  It is notably the premiere recording of the cycle as well. Bravo!

All this fittingly and nicely celebrates Daniel's 60th birthday. Canada is all the better for him, surely, as are we all. The Land's End Ensemble with conductor Karl Hirzer does full justice to the music and the music in turn brings along to us in repeated hearings a joy of recognition. It is very Modern and very timely to experience if you currently exist in some pandemic isolation in search of revivifying sounds. But that will no doubt not make the music any less desirable after our health crisis has gone. I gladly recommend this one!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Chris P. Thompson, True Stories & Rational Numbers, New Modern Music for Player Piano

 

Many readers will no doubt be at least somewhat familiar with the player piano music of Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), who created a body of work that took advantage of the nearly limitless possibilities of piano roll production to fashion a virtually unearthly sound.

And now we have a new voice on the player piano modern stratospheric horizon. some viable new sounds for such things, namely one Chris P. Thompson and his fascinating album of New Music for player piano, True Stories & Rational Numbers (Grin Agog Music AGOG-301). There are eight movements of the long composition represented on the album, with one reprised at the end. Thompson notably used the entire spectrum of available piano notes to create multiple parts that are rhythmically ultra-sophisticated, motility driven in ways virtually impossible with the human hands, tuned and retuned in a stimulating manner, and musically satisfying in the best sort of right-now Modern ways.

With Nancarrow the  sound and virtuosity of the works are astonishing. Chris P. Thompson is after something a bit more subtle, but equally rewarding. The piano throughout is tuned in just intonation--based on the overtone series and simple whole number frequency ratios. The composer tells us that "this recording represents an idealized realization from the near future where four grand pianos can dynamically retune themselves to an infinite lattice of pitches, and dance to the rhythmic relationships of simple mathematical ratios."

It feels as you listen like there is a future ethnicity, a kind of ritual ecstasy of tone that charges through your listening self in wonderful ways. It is indeed a true sonic adventure to hear and rehear this worthwhile, beautifully recorded music. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Jennifer Koh, Bach & Beyond, Part 3

 

US Violinist Jennifer Koh chimes in with her Bach and Beyond, Part 3  (Cedille CDR 90000 199 2-CDs) (see index for my review of Part 2). This volume has much to recommend it.  It bookends the wonderful unaccompanied Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3 by Bach. And then in between we get a chance to experience Ms. Koh's deep readings of Luciano Berio's "Sequenza VIII for solo violin" and the world premiere of John Harbison's "For Violin Alone."

Jennifer's readings of Bach are measured, feelingful without being datedly, overly emotive, a contemporary conversant positive, transcendent one might say. And so they set the stage for the expressionist contrast of the Berio, which is quite rigorous and concentrated with energy and exact spiel, so to speak.

And then the Harbison work breaks into seven movements that express very inventive contemporary melodics yet go beyond to a sort of timeless inner Bachian fluidity that nonetheless has a Harbisonian flex eloquence? Yes, that is what hits me as I listen a number of times. It seems like an important work for its outstanding effervescence of spirit. Modern, yet beyond the present is how it strikes me. And Jennifer gives us a spirited reading that phrases itself definitively, playfully, yet seriously expressive in a matter-of-fact way.

The CD set ends with a very caring and careful rendition of Bach's No. 3.

All told this is a superior, stimulatingly music volume of violin superlatives. Jennifer Koh is in her element, singing and articulately singular in a program that stands out for the what AND the how. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Douglas Knehans, Edward Smaldone, Double Portrait

 

One follows a path in life ever. For those musical our path takes us through the music in our heads and the music made as part of the world we inhabit. I am glad as a music writer to be exposed to music I probably would not have otherwise come across, especially in today's world with the virtual holding sway. So I am happy to be able to report in on a Modern American chamber music set entitled Double Portrait  (Ablaze Records ar-00053 2-CDs). It devotes a CD each to the music of Douglas Knehans and Edward Smaldone, two composers whose music I have mentioned on these pages, two who complement one another as two highly inventive Modernists who gain clarity in this kind of musical gallery setting by being juxtaposed one to the other.

Each single-disk program  brings to us a vivid selection of works. The Douglas Knehans one begins straight off with a very dynamic and satisfyingly exciting "Bang" for sextet and electronics. It is music of movement, excellently segueing the electronics part with high organic instrumental colors of rather brilliant hue, wonderfully scored for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello.

A haunting contrast follows with the stark and introspective "Temple" for solo flute. This all has High Modern eloquence, at an edge between tonality and the beyond with ultra-integrated syntax that has the logical sequentiality of the individually near inevitable.

"Lumen" for cello and piano continues the exploratory meditative mood of the work before. It reflects like golden light on a nighttime pond perhaps, showing something more by so doing than what might be otherwise there. The second movement reaches out in a concentric dialog that evinces thematic importance, a distinctive motility that makes beautiful aural sense of the instrumental pairing. The final movement returns to quietude and pondering, then a bit of determinational phraseology, of determined soundings.

The final "Falling Air" for sextet and Chinese sheng returns to a thicker texture, vibrantly outreaching in declamatory animation, then replacing it with longer tones in an open field. Knehans's wonderful way of casting ornate gestures and contrasting singing singleness in multitudes holds forth and stands out as a most fitting way to conclude.

The Smaldone disc opens with a very angular "Rituals: Sacred and Profane" for flute, cello and piano.

And then the violin calls forth to be later joined by infectiously dancing piano in a highly modern "Suite" that at times swings with a pretty mighty New Music arc.

The solo piano "Three Scenes from the Heartland" has a tonally advanced, somewhat jazzed rubato quality and alternately a pronounced rhythmic drive that is quite appealing.

The "Double Duo" of flute and clarinet and violin and cello proceeds in a very compelling set of interlocking twists and turns that makes an increasingly indelible impression on the musical memory.

So that makes up this lively and very musical Double Portrait. Each composer gives us state-of-the-art chamber modernisms that stand out and stay with you. The performances and recording quality are both very much excellent. This is music to savor, an irresistible set of works you will doubtless be glad to hear many times going forward. I know I will.


Monday, November 23, 2020

Connor Chee, Scenes From Dinetah



"Dinetah" is the Navajo Nation's name for itself. Navajo pianist Connor Chee's Scenes from Dinetah (Wild Saguaro Records) becomes comprehensible and welcome following that knowledge.  The album pairs twelve piano pieces with twelve brief preludes of poetic-descriptive Navajo texts conjoined in turn with succinct wooden flute and piano passages that flesh out the mood. The texts paint a particular scene, such as the first which translates from Navajo as "In the morning, I offer white corn pollen with my prayers." The prelude passages are atmospheric and they set the stage for the more substantial solo piano works themselves, which have a diatonic modality that relates back to traditional Navajo melodies indirectly.

While the music is quite peaceful, this is not to be confused with New Age music in that it is more substantial and more directed in its tonal melodic musicality. It is music that is quite lyrical and happily quite inventive while still retaining a Navajo feel to it. 

I found that once I got past the first listen the musical content began to differentiate itself so that there was no mistaking the contentful individuality of it all. It is not entirely expected and so all the better for it. I recommend this one for anybody seeking restful yet concentric  pianisms.



Thursday, November 19, 2020

Euntaek Kim, CME Presents Russian Piano Volume 3, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff

 

Pianist Euntaek Kim makes his recording debut on the very recent album CME Presents Russian Piano Volume 3 (MSR Classics MS 1745). The program gives us three Early Modern Russian classics from the early years of the 20th century. Anyone who is into Expressionist Russian piano will no doubt know these works--Prokofiev's "Piano Sonata No. 2" (1912),  Scriabin's "Piano Sonata No. 8" (1913) and Rachmaninoff's "Piano Sonata No. 1" (1908). Kim gives them all bold new readings.

All three works have a certain Expressionist turbulence to them, with Scriabin working towards the end of his compositional life and of course Prokofiev and Rachmaninov at the beginning. It was a time of cataclysm in Russia socio-politically and all three composers reflect their times in these sonatas. The Prokofiev is perhaps the most outgoing masterpiece of the three, a work not quite paralleled let alone surpassed, even by Prokofiev himself. That is not to say that the other two works are inconsequential--far from it. And to get them all here together is to understand how there was a certain convergence of manner, of affect that was rather beyond a typical Romanticism and into something heavily wrought and complexly Russian at heart.

I've grown up over the years listening to various versions of these works and have come to appreciate the way pianists like Richter and select others have accentuated the virtuosi veneer of these works--played often enough at the higher levels pretty rapidly with the emphasis on a supercharged velocity. What is distinctive about Euntaek Kim's readings of these works is a slower, more exacting articulation that brings out most clearly the musical joining together of part with part. The Rachmaninov sounds more deliberate especially, still turbulent but also judiciously weighted towards a logical sequential spanning of the whole.

What is true of the Rachmaninov holds true for the Scriabin and Prokofiev as well. Happily as many times as I've heard performances of all three works Kim's more pondersome versions give new life to the music to my ears and all the better for it am I. Euntaek Kim breathes new life into these chestnuts. Bravo!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Lars Hannibal, [Blue], Compositions and Arrangements by Lars Hannibal

 

Some contemporary music has a timeless feel to it. That's certainly true of composer-guitarist Lars Hannibal's [Blue], Compositions and Arrangements by Lars Hannibal (OUR Recordings 8.226914). The program contains ten short compositions by Lars and then 8 Danish songs arranged for recorder and guitar, two by Carl Neilson plus others by lesser-known composers.

Four musical voices variously give us this music, principally Lars on classical guitar and Michala Petri on recorder, but then also three songs for guitar and recorder plus the lovely voice of Amalie Hannibal Petri and the cello of Agnete Hannibal Petri. Those songs are quite feelingful, with a sweetness that is in many ways a product of Amalie's almost Astrud Gilberto-like tenderness, and then just as much the idiomatically felicitous, the quite natural charm of the songs themselves.

The instrumental compositions and song arrangements have tonal resonance and guitar-recorder historicity that touch on almost Dowlandesque-through-to-classical-and-beyond guitar underpinnings without directly referencing so much as atmospherically paralleling such things.

The basic recorder-guitar format that occupies most of the album time excels thanks to the vibrancy of the compositions and the fine shadings of the two instrumentalists. That is true of the Hannibal pieces and then in slightly different ways of  the rearranged Danish songs--by Thorvald Aagaard, Thomas Laub, Carl Nielsen, Franz Gebauer, Oluf Ring, and C.E.F. Weyse. The music covers tonal territory that gives Lars and Michala new expressive possibilities and fleshes out the program further in happy ways.

There is a real place for this CD in your listening cycle I suspect. It you want a jolt of songful tonal fare that enhances your mood with subtlety and always with high musicality, well then here you go. I could easily scarf up an entire album of the songs with Amalie P. and quartet but the three here act as signposts showing the way through the substantial songful landscape while they punctuate the rest of the program which is very nice indeed. Recommended.


Thursday, November 12, 2020

John Harbison, Concertos for String Instruments, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

 

John Harbison (b 1938) is a dean of Modern US composers with more than 300 distinguished and original works in his catalog. The vital Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose highlights his later period with some three Concertos for String Instruments (BMOP Sound  1074). We get a chance to drill down into some brilliance of presence in the 1988 "Concerto for Viola and Orchestra," the 2009 "Double Concerto for Violin, Violoncello and Orchestra" and the 2005 "Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra."

Later Harbison retains the high inventive and orchestrational acuteness of his earlier, more High Modernist work but then adds a somewhat Neo-Classical tang to it all. Through the entirety of this program he retains his own original voice, quite happily. This is as true of the overall body of work in the pas decades as it is of these works. The concerted dynamics of these present works however set them apart in their dialogic repartee, as one might expect.

I am appreciating all three here for their idiomatic string expression but the Bass Viol Concerto stands out for me as especially memorable. Edwin Barker does a fine job as the bass soloist. The sonority is enhanced by a tuning in fifths instead of fourths. The same performance excellence also applies throughout the program to Marcus Thompson on viola, Emily Bruskin on violin and Julia Bruskin on cello.

In the end we experience three centerpiece expressi0ons of Late Modernity played with care and proper artistry. It is another BMOP winner and a major addition to the Harbison discography. Grab this by all means if you are so inclined.



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Liza Stepanova, E Pluribus Unum, New Piano Music

 



Piano master Liza Stepanova pays homage to present-day American immigrant composers in her very winning CD E Pluribus Unum (Navona NV6300). The project was in response to changing attitudes and the at-times disturbing policies prevailing in the US in the last several years. Liza underscores the contributions made by immigrants to the health and welfare of the nation by centering her program on a select and fascinating set of Modern solo piano works by composers who have migrated to the USA. These are not "big names" so much as recent voices, stars in the night sky we can start to recognize, so to speak.

There are some nine evocative this-century Modern solo piano works, all reflecting the time and the lead-up to the time, so having some influence from the world about us of course, some slight ethnicity in whatever way we can experience it, not always in some overtly obvious way. Everything was written between 2000 and 2017 and sound that way, in that they are not as directed backwards as forwards. 

The music is hearteningly well played and definitely something substantial and ultra-pianistic so that everything keeps sounding more and more "special" if you give it half a chance. By the time you are done you appreciate the composers involved, whether it be Lera Auerbach, Kamran Ince, Chaya Czernowin, Reinaldo Moya, Anna Clyne, Eun Young Lee, Badie Khaleghian, Pablo Ortiz, and Gabriela Lena Frank.

The music is less Modernist abstraction and more in line with evocative dramatics, sound color poetry that owes more to Crumb and perhaps Messiaen, the lyrical side of Cage, an aspect here and there of Morton Feldman, a lingering waft of Impressionist expression, yet for all that a decided step forward in original content. 

Clearly Ms. Stepanova has taken to these works and has found definitive performance pathways.  This is music of importance and depth, played brilliantly. It is something the New Music follower should not miss, truly. Kudos!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Eric Heilner, Modern Sounds in Classical Music

 


Who is Eric Heilner? A look on his website biography is most instructive. His father was Irwin Heilner, who studied with Roger Sessions and Nadia Boulanger and was a member of Aaron Copland's Young Composer's Group. Eric grew up in a Classical Music household. Piano lessons and hearing the Door's "Light My Fire" when it came out combined and he played a good deal of rock without becoming world famous exactly. although he opened for some legendary artists. He in time entered a  non-musical career, a common thing out there and indeed my experience as well.

In the 2000s the music bug bit him again and to make a long story short he began composing and rediscovered and extended his immersion in the classical greats. He studied at Julliard and the rest, the result is what you hear on this CD, Modern Sounds in Classical Music (self released).

We are treated to some six compositions in all. The style is Tonal Modern in a way that suggests a freely eclectic non-dogmatic openness, with an "ear-to-the-ground" response to a lifetime of musical experience.

From the first memorable strains of "Short Story for Viola & Piano" we hear an expressiveness and a dynamic that shows a pan-musical influence that incorporates Rock, Romantic, New Music, the underlying presence of Classical Era roots  and a sort of songfulness that perhaps comes with a vast musical hearing-playing that occurs in a full life?

"Bounce #3" puts a semi-metallic Rock guitar sound in touch with rocking piano, floating minimalesque winds and sometimes strident strings. It is a nice change from the typical these days. That is true of the program as a whole.

Another example "SQrt - Season 1 Episode 1" is a string quartet movement that clusters with two others for lively listening. This is music that breaks any pre-set mold and does so inventively..

If you are open to anything really musical in the New Music world and do not set your categories to hard and fast ones you will find this music a happy adventure I suspect. I am sympathetic to the "later in life" rediscovery of Mr. Heilner--since I too have a somewhat similar trajectory. He is no Folk Art Grandma Moses and perhaps that is for the best, There might be some "outsider" art connection one might make on listening though, regardless. And who says there has to be some unbreakable set of rules for what New Music must be? Eric Heilner has a natural talent and we are the better for hearing his music I would certainly say. Recommended.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Ferdinand Hiller, Symphony in E Minor, Schumann, Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Ronald Lau, Piano

 

Pianist Ronald Lau comes through with a most unusual program for solo piano, two Romantic era symphonies in piano transcription, one rather obscure, Ferdinand Hiller's Symphony in E Minor, the other quite familiar in its orchestral version, namely Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C Major (MSR Classics MS 1759).

Up to now I've known little about Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885).The liners to this CD tell us that he is mostly remembered these days as close friends with Schumann and Mendelssohn. The Symphony here (written in 1848) has a descriptive subtitle in German, which may be translated as "But Spring Must Come." The piano transcription is recent (2018), by pianist Lau. It is convincing and quite pianistic.

The symphony itself reflects the Early Romantic milieu of Schumann and Mendelssohn and is not without thematic interest. The transcription brings out a piano worthy content that would of course not otherwise be as aurally apparent and Lau gives us a very musical reading.

Schumann's symphonies are sometimes criticized for their orchestration, but I came of age listening to Leonard Bernstein's performances of them and never felt the lack with his warmth and exuberance. The 3rd was one of my first extended symphonic listens and I as a result have a bit of a soft spot for the work.

The transcription (accomplished around 1882 by Theodor Kirchner) boils it all down to some very lively and full piano acrobatics. The Scherzo translates especially well into solo piano terms.

Ronald Lau gives us singingly musical performances of these rare transcriptions. In the end there is much to like. This one is a bit of a sleeper but anyone who seeks something a little different will no doubt find this one as interesting as I did. Check it out.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Jeremy Siskind, Perpetual Motion Etudes for Piano

 

Jeremy Siskind's Perpetual Motion Etudes for Piano comes to us as a nicely recorded CD (Outside in Music OIM 2004) by the composer and then also a booklet of the music itself. These are virtuoso vehicles, some nine in all, that emphasize varying demands on the player and a nice variety of velocities and colors, all ever in motion, somewhere situated between the recent modernisms to be heard in Jazz players like Jarrett, Corea, acoustic Hancock and also some recent tendencies in Classical New Music tonality.

The inventive ease of this music makes the amalgamation seem natural and comes at the listener as ever-flowing. You hear polyrhythms, whirligig rotating velocities in the left hand, complicated rhythmic articulations and vivid harmonic-melodic colors that stand the test of repeated hearings to remain evergreen. There is a reflection of Brazilian Samba Jazz, a little bit of Hard Bop, an occasional balladic feel, rhapsodic and syncopated velocity, drumming-like independence between  the hands, a momentary blues progression, etc.

It runs a sort of gauntlet of motility possibilities in ways that are musically memorable. To hear the music is to explore those depths and I imagine to learn to play this music would be a further growing experience.

It is a worthy musical adventure and altogether piano music of substance. Check it out.


Friday, October 23, 2020

Douglas Knehans, Backwards from Winter


Happily composer Douglas Knehans recently sent me a few more CDs of his music to explore. One of these, a recent one which is garnering my appreciative attention is Backwards from Winter (ablaze records ar00054). It is appropriately described on the cover as an "operatic monodrama" for soprano (Judith Weusten), electric cello (Antonis Pratsinakis) and surround electronics (Knehans himself). There is a video that goes with the music in performance that I have not seen as yet but for the purposes of strictly aural enjoyment there is plenty to appreciate without it. The work stands out regardless.

The press sheet tags this music as reminiscent of Janacek and Mahler. I do not find anything to quibble about in that assertion, yet Backwards from Winter maintains an original stance even if the mood-character of the work has a lineage one might trace to those wonderful composers.

The libretto by Juanita Rockwell starts with the despair of winter and a lost romantic relationship. As the title suggests the women reflects on the relationship via a backwards chronology through the seasons, each with its poignant memorie

What impresses me the most about this work and its fine performance is the highly inventive melodic-harmonic mood spinning, nicely fabricated out of the relatively simple means of soprano, electric cello and Knehans's electronics which have well orchestrated synth qualities as well as an organ-keyboard provenance in nice ways.

Judith Weusten gives us a beautiful performance of the highly idiomatic and dramatically substantial soprano role. Antonus Pratsinakis brings to us a finely atmospheric presence as cellist and second vocalist on occasion.  Knehans shows himself to be a gifted writer of operatic fare that simultaneously partakes in the intimacy of lieder, for this is a sort of Winterreise and a sort of 21st century Kindertotenlieder with a moody view and a modern advanced tonal palette.

The music flows from season-to-season and its memories with a sort of eloquent musical syntax that feels right and keeps getting better with every hearing.

I do not hesitate to recommend this one highly. It is music that stands out in outstanding ways. The performances set a benchmark standard that doubtless will remain the high bar for this work for a long time to come.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Simone Dinnerstein, A Character of Quiet, Schubert - Glass

 

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein recorded a solo piano album at her Brooklyn home last June at the beginning of the COVID Pandemic. The eerie quietude of the Big Apple in this period has poetic reflection in the solo piano album that resulted from her June sessions, aptly titled A Character of Quiet, Schubert - Glass (OMM Orange Mountain Music 0147). Now of course music paradoxically cannot be strictly quiet. It exists through breaking the silence. Yet this special "CHARACTER" of quiet builds its sound as it considers the quiet surrounding existence in this, a most odd and dark time period.

And so Simone Dinnerstein by her very choice of repertoire and then in her specially concentrated performances reflects that character in ways that do full justice to the music as spawned in the quiet and relative solitude of New York Pandemic Life Saving Time.

Each work comes out of the quiet in a special way. The Philip Glass Etudes Nos. 16, 6 and 2 are of a piece, in an ostinato minor reflectivity that Ms. Dinnerstein gives a quiet and then less quiet passion to without seeking to call a lot of attention to her own part in the realization. That is fitting for the world we hold onto and collectively resist as we persist. Now I do not automatically like a Phillip Glass solo piano work. The combination of the music itself and the simpatico performance makes it all work when it does. It surely does here. 

Then too,  Schubert's wonderful Piano Sonata in Bb, D 960 expresses a sometimes quiet passion, an abundance of melodically long-form spinning that Simone gives introspective weight to, reflecting and reacting in beautiful ways, spanning the extraordinarily inventive breadth of each movement with a just-so articulation that works wonderfully well. 

This performance may not have the sort of over-the-top grandstanding exuberance of a typically good performance of a while ago, but then we are in a time where the music and hence the performance must in some ways exist for us in a singular solitude, without the contagion of a bravo response, but then with a savoring at once striking and disarmingly straightforward, that is in the case with Ms. Dinnerstein's performance. As I asked on Facebook as I first listened to this album, how can such a rotten world produce something as beautiful as the D. 960 Sonata? It is in the contrast that we discover the essence, I guess. And in the process we recognize that not ALL life is rotten, of course.

Like any worthwhile new performance should, it causes one to reflect anew and rediscover the wonderful intricacies of the work all over again. Dinnerstein makes the music sing out touchingly. If life is precious, this Schubert helps make it so. It does. So I recommend this album heartily. It will help you through, I hope, and we can all meet in a concert on the other side of this time, one can only hope fervently. Bravo anyway!

Friday, October 16, 2020

Kjartan Sveinsson, Der Klang Der Offenbarung des Gottlichen

 

Der Klang Der Offenbarung Des Gottlichen (Sono Luminus SLE-70017) is called an opera but perhaps is not one as strictly defined. There are no costumed singers on the stage, there are instead a series of painted sets depicting German Romantic cliches, not sequentially plot-oriented but awash in banality. The orchestra and choir perform their parts from the orchestra pit. 

The music revels in a pared down lyricism that has flashes of Romanticism, but also traces of Renaissance and Baroque-to-Classical shadings, often fragmented and repeated as a kind of later Minimalism that has resonance in Radical Tonality. Composer Kjartan Sveinsson at times reminds of Part's approach to 'the old-in-the-new," other moments less so. Either way the music stands out as distinctive and original.

It all apparently was inspired by Icelander Halidor Laxness and his book World Light with its tale of an "incurable longing for beauty and its catastrophic consequences," as the liner notes have it.

And the music most definitely revels in a lyric beauty that at times perhaps gains a tragic feeling through its endlessly static unfolding? Perhaps.

The main thrust of this music-as-music is an enchantment that lingers on in the listening mind after the music ends. It is a poetic yearning one experiences, a sad reverie no doubt, that nonetheless beguiles as one experiences the slowness of its presence. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Malcolm Lipkin, Recollections, Chamber Music Retrospective

 

English composer Malcolm Lipkin (1932-2017) learned during his studies with Hungarian-British Matyas Seiber that a composition above all should be about the essential, with nothing redundant. Lipkin gained recognition in the 1950s and then later was sometimes seen as "old fashioned." Nonetheless he continued to follow his muse, becoming from the latter sixties on one of the pioneers in self-publishing. As I listen to this anthology in the course of the usual repeated hearings I do not find his synthetic and ultimately original eclecticism in any way old hat, but rather refreshing in its direct straightforward musical candor. Times can change!

The recent album of his works, Recollections (Divine Art dda 25203) looks at some seven compositions in a kind of retrospective sampling and spanning of the whole of his career from some of the first successes of the '50s to his very last pieces composed at the end of his long life.

The overall thrust of the program moves us to contemplate a sensitive, briskly lyrical non-dodecaphonic Modernist that thrives on inventive constancy and expressionist balance without veering into the High Modernist rhythmic abstractions of the more avant voices.. The music has the bark and bite of harmonic Modernity and chromatic open-field forwardness without necessarily straying into complete atonality. Or, alternately as in "Clifford's Tower" there is a coloring with dissonance and at times a going of some distance away from a tonal center, then processing back into a center once again. This sort of thing used to be anathema for Serialists like Boulez. but today we no longer find it so jarring to deviate from some kind of Modern "purity," do we? The point is that the music convinces without belonging to a particular camp.

"Clifford's Tower" performed by the Nash Ensemble gives us around 20 minutes of chamber ensemble adventure, vibrant expression, creative thrust. It is a work that seems ever more interesting the more one hears it. The String Trio is also especially appealing to me. Then there is "Naboth's Vineyard," which brings John Turner's excellent recorder playing into a trio mix with Nicholas Trygstad on cello and Janet Simpson on harpsichord for five miniature movements that cover uniquely a past-in-present focus on things.

This is music to experience ideally without a set of preconceived expectations. It is a valuable look at an English figure of the 20th Century worthy of exploring. It makes me want to hear his orchestral music as well. All Anglophiles take note. Worth hearing.



Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Douglas Knehans, Unfinished Earth, Gareth Davies, Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Mikel Toms



Often formally akin to Stravinsky's "Rite" and perhaps certain Ruggles works, in the best Modernist tradition of thickly and boldly underscored orchestral dissonance with a powerful series of gestures, we have Douglas Knehans' two-work CD Unfinished Earth (ablaze Records  00036). It is a very dramatic program, nicely performed. It gives us a catbird's seat on Knehans' pronounced orchestral flair.

The Brno Philharmonic under Mikel Toms take matters in hand for an ideally dynamic and dexterous tensile-strong presence throughout.

The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, "Tempest," sports a very mercurial and sound-colorful flute performance by Gareth Davies. The solo part has wonderful presence and drive--and sets off an orchestral score that expresses alternately tenderness and power. The music embodies according to the liners the presence of wind as it courses through our planet. Indeed that seems apt.

The title work "Unfinished Earth" has a rhythmic insistency and a brashly dissonant demeanor that carves out a sound universe unique to Knehans yet paradigmatically High Modernist, with a level of expressive feeling that might be identified partly as Romantic but not backward leaning so much as chasm spanning. As the earth slowly evolves so does our life, the liners assert. And perhaps no more so than now do we feel the constancy of change and the need to take on fresh challenges and survive with a dignity and consistency that rises to whatever comes. 

The three movements exude alternately strength and mystery as does our earth. It is an extraordinary work.

The press sheet that came with the CD asserts that the music is influenced by Lutoslawski, Stravinsky and Mahler. I find that quite interesting and have no reason to contest it. Those influences are fully synthesized and internalized into a special whole, however.  On the basis of this program I am happy to count Knehans among the most accomplished and original orchestral composers of our time. I recommend this most heartily. It belongs in anyone's collection who follows the newest of the new. Bravo, bravo.


Friday, October 2, 2020

Norman Dello Joio, The Trial at Rouen, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Odyssey Opera, Gil Rose

 

A sign of the seemingly unending potential in the contemporary abundance of works completed and composers working since 1900 I note as I open myself up to listen closely and carefully to various new recordings in the past decade. Some series are hands-down worth taking seriously in this light--such as the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under conductor-director Gil Rose.

The latest BMOP release only reaffirms their importance to uncovering neglected aspects of the USA Modernist scene. This time it is Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) and his opera The Trial at Rouen (BMOP Sound 1073 2-CDs). I've long been exposed to his works yet somehow in the crush of life events have not until now come truly to appreciate it all. There were so many compositional voices in that period in the USA that we have not always gotten a decent window on some artist's works. And Dello Joio is up there as a very deserving example of one in need of revived attention, based on this fine release.

Wikipedia has an informative article on his life and work. Perhaps key there is the observation that he studied with Paul Hindemith, who encouraged him to develop his pronounced lyrical side, which was in some opposition to the atonal Modernism that was more or less dominant at that time. That fits in with a detailed listen to the Trial at Rouen (1950) along with the accompanying "Triumph of St. Joan Symphony" (1952).

What we have in abundance in both the opera and the symphony is an extraordinarily expressive through-composed inventiveness that works in diatonic-chromatic synchrony to give us along with orchestrational girth a extended beauty of lyricism that nonetheless has a hard edge to it. It is as gritty a music as it is luxuriously blooming. 

Indeed it makes perfect sense that it should be so as the subject matter of the opera is dark, very dark. A woman, Joan of Arc,  has visions, hears voices, is branded as a heretic and the rest is the dark history we blush to contemplate, feel horror at its unfolding, wish it might be otherwise in our past. It is a hauntingly moody work, endlessly inventive brilliance in a superb performance.

The "Triumph of Saint Joan Symphony" has a perfectly complementary quality in this context, a ravishing study in light and shadow. The two in tandem give us a fascinating aural window into Dello Joio's meditations on the saint's life and tragic end.

Indeed, the composer in the liners tells us that St. Joan of Arc was a continual inspiration to him, an epitome of his own "struggle [and] fulfillment by sacrifice." And so it is.

In the end we are left with considerably worthwhile Dello Joio, pronouncedly expressive and lyrical, contemplative and singular. It is a wonderful introduction to the composer and a great addition if you already know his music. BMOP does it again and the singers of Odyssey Opera are first-class and up for the challenge! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Gene Pritsker, Maggots and Other Chamber Music

 

I've found the music of living composer Gene Pritsker to be progressive in the best sense, striving forward and fearlessly eclectic, originally wayward and waywardly original. Type his name  in the search box above and you'll see a fair number of reviews I've penned on his music. A new release by Gene is generally an event to my mind. That is especially true with the latest, Maggots and Other Chamber Music of Gene Pritsker (Composers Concordance Records COMCON0057). It is filled with adventure and daring, never content to stay in one place. 

It accents Classical Modernity by touching on multiple style sets. A fulcrum point is the central six movement "Berlin Suite," which takes up and updates Jazz inflected theatre music as practiced in pre-Nazi Germany by Weil, Krenek, Hindemith, etc. and given a forward push into the today we musically breathe in-and-out daily.

From there we get some very contemporary present-day equivalencies via Jazzed-Pop-Rock, Romantic-meets-Hip-Hop electrically inflected sounds and even a beautifully oblique Indian laced hybrid with sitar and string quartet on "The Most Incorrigible Vice." And that too has some strong roots in the anything-goes gestures in New Music with all manner of influences presented for our happy ears from a 21st Century analog to a Lou Harrison or a Frank Zappa.

Each of the generally short but concentrated works here, nine in all with two in multiple movements, each show a remarkably fluent ease of genre vocabulary that combines with the exploratory experimentalism of High Modernism as we know it, as it all sparkles and glitters with a translucency and poignant lucidity.

Free your mind of expectations and let the universal revisionism of everything possible take shape with continually surprising juxtapositions. This is music that in ordinary hands might be deemed "clever," but this is too good to be merely gesticular or anecdotal. It makes advanced and exceptional music out of a bold recombinatory logic.

Heartily recommended.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Chris Opperman, Chamber Music From Hell

 

Some music has clear forbearers yet covers its own ground in happy and original ways. One such is a recent album by composer Chris Opperman entitled Chamber Music From Hell (Purple Cow PCR-009). It's about a post-human world and its music. Robotic AI dialog of a haunting nature frames the musical program and gives us an alienated universe both chilling and poetically singular. 

The majority of compositions have a High Modernist tang, an orchestra texture similar in kind to Frank Zappa's later Synclavier Electronics, Then there is some stirring solo electric guitar and band on "Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?" featuring Mike Keneally on guitar, Opperman on Synclavier and a game rhythm team of Kurt Morgan on bass, Ryan Brown on drums. It reminds of classic later Zappa jams but then has its own distinct way.

Throughout the purely electronic blends with  a Rock presence and in the end one is very impressed with the outcome. The AI personas, some anyway, seem taken aback by the automatons in charge who have snuffed out their masters in an act of humane-ness. The music explores the drama of empty loss, I guess you could say, the chilling emptiness of the never-more.

A highlight is surely the finale, a 15-part "Cribbage Variations" (2017), a long intricate chamber work based on a tone row from Webern. The chamber ensemble amalgamates organic instruments with their synthesized equivalents, with some actual trombone and piano in parts that extend in good ways the aural palette.

The for-once-and-for-all virtual landscape that replaces humanity altogether seems much less fantastic, much less unbelievable than it might have in 1950. That atmospheric once you experience the unprecedented lockdown of the Pandemic seems analogous to what one may well be missing in the bricks-and-mortar decline, the increasing loss of society-as-experienced. Opperman creates a Futurism of AI characters and synthetic flowering that makes sense, amplifies the story line and gives us a High Modern chamber newness that owes such to the modernist past yet updates the possibilities for expression in this plunge into a virtuality existence we all know increasingly well, even though of course we are still INSIDE it all ourselves..

The music is original and ultra-expressive, varied and moving, filled with the futurist now, New Music of true distinction. If it follows in Zappa's footsteps it does so with originality. Very recommended.

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. Somei Satoh, Lucas Oickle, and 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 for yourself--I should also mention another one by Marc Mellits  All are 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.