Search This Blog

Friday, May 29, 2020

Joan Valent, Poetic Logbook

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 25, 2020

James Primosch, Carthage, The Crossing, Donald Nally

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Nick Storring, My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Jeremy Beck, By Moonlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 1, 2020

Thomas Ades, Works for Solo Piano, Han Chen

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

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

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

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

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