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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Vyacheslav Artyomov, Album XI

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Thomas Fortmann, Gimme Twelve, Seven New Music Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gerald Levinson, Now Your Colors Sing

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Froberger, Complete Fantasias and Canzonas, Terence Charlston

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

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

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

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