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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.