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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.