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Friday, February 14, 2020

Heare Ensemble, Vox, Music of George Crumb, Narong Prangcharoen, Stacy Garrop, Carter Pann

Vox (Innova 040) allows our ears to bask in Modern Chamber Music of a less abstract sort, with a nod to evocative meaning. The Heare Ensemble give us warm and vivacious readings of mostly multi-movement works that hang together well as a kind of expressive whole.

The Heare Ensemble distinguish themselves throughout as an eloquent trio comprising Jennie Oh Brown on flutes, Jennifer Blyth on piano and Kurt Fowler on cello.

The album celebrates George Crumb's 90th birthday with a mindful yet ebullient performance of his classic 1971 tribute to Humpback whale song, "Vox Balaenae." The three players are to be masked in performance, their instruments electrified. The Heare Ensemble first performed the work together during their student days at Eastman. Since then they have played it in concert more than 25 times. It is both a sign of their affinity for the music and a bellwether of their intimate mastery of the Crumb style. Along with his "Makrokosmos" series for piano and several other chamber works "Vox Balaenae" is sublime Crumb and a fitting way to celebrate his 90th. Happy birthday, George!

Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen has a well-considered de facto kind of response to the work with his "Bencharong" trio in five movements. It follows the creation sequence of the Thai pottery of that name--which is a rather precarious production with three to eight successive glaze firings, each with a different color. Only after the sequence of stages are properly overcome is the vessel completed. One false move in any of the stages and the pot is discarded. The music has that "making it all count" immediacy to it.

Crumb's love of Appalachian folk song and his generally melodic vibrancy are celebrated in the final two works, Stacy Garrop's "Silver Dagger," which is an effectively lovely reworking of such a folk song, and the Carter Pann "Melodies for Robert," which sports out-front, engaging melodics dedicated in loving memory to his father.

And so ends a program literally brimming over with meaningful music. The Crumb work revels in benchmark poignancy; the three accompanying works stand out as worthwhile and worthy counterparts in this high-watermark program. The Heare Ensemble triumphs. The music wins the day from beginning to end. Hear this, by all means. It reminds us how central Crumb remains in our time, and happily how his legacy is very alive.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Shih-Hui Chen, Silvergrass & Other Orchestral Works

The liner notes to today's album rightly call this music "intercultural composition." And so it is. Chinese composer Shih-Hui Chen (b. 1962) comes out with five intricate, moving and fascinating examples rather deftly combining Chinese and Western Modern Classical elements on Silvergrass & Other Orchestral Works (New World Records 80807-2).

Ms. Chen has a remarkable creative talent in her ability to combine both style-sets and in the process give us a musical result most definitely greatly more than a mere totaling sum of the parts. There is a Chinese traditional concern with space and spaciousness and a special arsenal of timbrally bright instrumental techniques (mainly for the Chinese solo instruments when utilized in a quasi-concerted mode). And then there is a Western Modern concern with melodic-harmonic sophistication and motion-centered layering as we have come to progressively experience it in the past 100 years. And that in coexistence with at times some diatonic-pentatonic melodic elements as befits Chinese Classical tradition.

The four-movement title work "Silvergrass for Cello and Chamber Orchestra" (2016) forms the centerpiece of the program with its mysterious chamber orchestra panorama and concentrically expressive solo cello part. It is perhaps on first listen less overtly Chinese than the others but nonetheless has resonance in its timeless poetic outlook. And it is in fact a nod to Taiwanese Opera in its sonic foundations.

On the other end of the spectrum is the opening work "Fantasia on the Theme of Guanglingsan for Zheng and Chinese Orchestra" (2014), where the instrumental timbres are more or less wholly Chinese yet the unfolding has a linear logic not unfamiliar to Western New Music.

The give and take of the two contrasting dimensional approaches undergo creative transformation and make for excellent music throughout the program, which in addition includes "A Plea to Lady Chang'e for Nanguan Pipa and Chamber Orchestra" (2014), "Fantasia on the Theme of Plum Blossoms for String Orchestra" (2011) and the "Concerto for Pipa and Chamber Orchestra" (2002).

Kudos to Hsin-Fang Hsu on zheng, Mei-Hui Wei on Nanguan pipa, Wu Man on pipa, and Wen-Sinn Yang on cello. Compliments as well for fine contributions by the Little Giant Chinese Orchestra under Chih-Sheng Chen, Loop 38 under Jerry Hou, and the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra under Yao-Yu Wu.

Each of the five works covers important ground. Space and time discourage a full discussion of each. Another highlight however is the innovative work "A Plea to Lady Chang'e for Nanguan Pipa and Chamber Orchestra." It begins by considering a well-known work in the southern Chinese Nanguan repertoire and in effect recomposes the entire piece--including vocals and the Nanguan pipa parts--into New Music terms.The undertaking is of course very ambitious but what matters is that the result breathes and expresses in lively fashion the double impetus for its creation. It all works, in short, in engaging and memorable ways.

You could say that about the entire program. Meticulously detailed and spirited performances and rather breathtaking compositional maneuvers make it all new and heartening. This is music of real merit, thoroughly path-breaking and intrinsically worthwhile as a serious foray to widen the intercultural boundaries of New Music today. Recommended, surely.



Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ben Verdery, Scenes from Ellis Island, New Guitar Music

Composer-guitarist Ben Verdery writes guitar music that is rather remarkably idiomatic, music that lays out on the strings well. If you did not already know he was a guitarist (since he plays on the album at hand) you could tell from the music. I mean on his album Scenes from Ellis Island (Panoramic Recordings PAN14), which features six of his guitar-centered works, with the composer on mostly nylon stringed classical guitar (but also baritone and steel string for one work).

It is work that evokes both musical and extra-musical associations and does so with a sense of eclectic encompass. Listeners would not mistake this music for something historical, older. It is thoroughly of our time without necessarily being rabidly "Modern." For that it is thoroughly Contemporary. There are "Progressive" elements, a nod to Popular Culture (in vocalist's beat box rhythms on "From Aristotle") a kind of ethnic vocal panorama (in "Scenes from Ellis Island") and some very nicely hewn guitar lines, some fascinating inventions for one or two guitars, vocals, and in one case, cello (the latter on the title work).

Ben Verdery in the liners talks of the varying inspirations for the works on the album. The opening "What He Said" (with Simon Powis on second guitar) utilizes call-and-response and musically portrays Verdery's inspired love of Gospel Music.

"Now and Ever" centers on the minor second interval, accentuated by a special tuning. The interval for the composer represents the struggle and sorrow of those suffering repression.

The four-part "From Aristotle" features a co-composed collaboration with mixed vocalist Mark Martin (with beat box, Tuvan overtone singing, East Indian rhythms, synchronized vocal-guitar lines and a "baroque/gospel guitar lament") both making musical equivalencies to several texts by Aristotle.

"the rain falls equally on all things" was initially inspired by Schubert's "Nachtstuck."

"Scenes from Ellis Island" followed from the composer's visit to the historic site and his feelings on encountering evidence of the bold and brave process of immigration, of those "yearning to breathe free" as the iconic poem about Lady Liberty has it.

In the main this music gives us some extraordinary well constructed, inspired and for that matter well played guitar works. Anyone who looks for such things in the New Music realm should find this one especially nice, I would hope. Recommended.







Monday, February 10, 2020

Kirk O'Riordan, Autumn Winds, Holly Roadfeldt, Ann Moss, Peter Dutilly

There are compositional avenues that have begun opening up since somewhere in the later '70s-early '80s of last century. It is a post-Minimalist tonal lyricism that owes something to the examples of Arvo Part, the John Cage of "Cheap Imitation" (his Satie tribute), George Crumb, perhaps the example of later Morton Feldman, and other things besides, not to omit influential Minimalists like Riley and Reich.

It is music that generally eschews complex harmonic modulation for sometimes an almost chant-like ritual steady-state. Repetition may be present but it is not the primary vehicle of musical syntax so much as there is a linear logic of that sometimes as combined with an overarching variational sequencing.The more ritualistic of this style has been dubbed Radical Tonality and the Cold Blue label has been an outstanding exponent of that byway, but there are less cosmically oriented works out there too that nonetheless show off a direct tonal lyricism as well. Today we have a composer in the latter "camp," and four exemplary chamber configuration examples.

I speak of Kirk O'Riordan and his Autumn Winds (Ravello RR8029). Featured are a series of somewhat interlocking, mutually illuminating, recently composed (2012-2016) works, two for soprano Ann Moss and pianist Holly Roadfeldt--the song cycle "Four Beautiful Songs" (with Peter Dutilly on viola) and the vocal-instrumental sequence "Autumn Winds," then the purely instrumental contrasts in "Prayer Stones" (for Roadfelt and Peter Dutilly on viola), and "Beautiful Nightmares" for piano (Roadfelt) alone.

"Nightmares" is the more harmonically complex, at times more dense and therefore the more overtly "Modern" sounding of the lot. But like the others there are tonal sequences that set the music apart as not of the "variations on variations" sort of approach. There are sectionalities and a deliberate quality one comes to recognize and appreciate on repeated listens.

The viola-piano "Prayer Stones" is quite contemplative, lyrical, "quietly spiritual" as Holly Roadfelt notes on the liners. The music breaks into a number of meditative gestures and has a beauty that in effect haunts the listening self when heard with deep concentration.

"Autumn Wind" sets 15 haiku by the revered poet Matsuo Basho. There is a musical equivalency to the spare suchness of the words that enchants nicely.

Finally the soprano-viola-piano "Four Beautiful Songs" sets the poetic texts of O'Riordan's close friend Lee Upton. It is all about beauty as experienced from multiple personal angles, including as Roadfelt notes "the wonder, the conflict, the joy and the turbulence" of it all. The music has tensile strength and contrasting episodic originality.

That in effect is this album in a nutshell. It is a program notable for its fine, idiomatic performances by all concerned. Compositionally it seems on first blush simple at heart but as one listens the details both flesh themselves out and freshen the listening mind so that it all seems increasingly evergreen  and more complex than at first might be thought. Recommended for those New Music enthusiasts and acolytes who find a lyrical turn welcome. O'Riordan brings us much to contemplate and appreciate.

                                                                                                                                                           








Thursday, February 6, 2020

Will Liverman, Jonathan King, Whither Must I Wander

Baritone Will Liverman and pianist Jonathan King join together for a program of mostly 20th century songs about the varying dimensions of wanderlust, the urge to travel in search of transformation. Whither Must I Wander (Odradek ODRC389) bounds between points in a varied palette of musical narrative that each paint a poetic picture in words and tone.

The first thing one experiences on hearing this program is the sheer burnished beauty and heroism of Will Liverman's baritone. His voice is impeccably musical, nicely declamatory, dramatically present, powerful and rather sublimely booming forth no matter what the song. Pianist Jonathan King seconds Liverman with a pianism that is poetic and, yes, heroic in its own way as well.

The two together give us most distinctive readings of lively works, each track giving vent to a story-song that comes to terms with a varying personal mandate to wander.

With Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Songs of Travel" the narrator in nine interrelated songs grasps the freedom and independence of voyaging forth onto the open road and contrasts it with the contrasting allurements of love and home.

James Frederick Keel (1871-1954) follows with three songs on the lure of the seagoing life, "Three Salt-Water Ballads." Herbert Howells (1892-1983) on "King David" weaves a magic about a restlessness underpinning to wandering while showing some of his own original harmonic twists and turns. Aaron Copland's adaptation of the old folk hymn "Gather at the River" brings out the spiritual dimensions of going forth, while the compelling traditional seafaring folk song (arranged in 2000 by Steven Mark Kohn) "Ten Thousand Miles Away" sings obliquely of the longing to migrate home at last to one's life love.

For the final songs we get memorable treatment of Nikolai Medtner's 1905 "Wanderer's Night Song" and Robert Schumann's 1840 "Mendnacht," both with lyric invention and vivid content.

So ends a lively and moving program. It is none of it Modern in some advanced sense so much as it is highly engaging in the tandem of harmonic-melodic excellence and the singular theme effectively unwound by the very talented twosome. Liverman seems born to such lieder and with the brightly sensitive Jonathan King creates some definite magic. The Vaughan Williams has in its own way a definitive aura about it and the rest of the songs stand out with ringing musicality. Bravo!



Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Sonora Winds, From Shadow to Light, 20th Century Music for Winds from Poland

Six 20th Century Polish Composers contribute well-crafted and often inspired wind music as the talented and disciplined Sonora Winds step forward for the album From Darkness to Light (MSR Classics MS1702).

We are treated to some fine Lutoslawski and five compositions by lesser known but worthy 20th Century Polish voices. All-in-all there are three Trios for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon--by Witold Lutoslawski (1945), Antoni Szalowski (1937), and Wladyslaw Walentynowicz (1952). Then for flute, clarinet and bassoon there is Wawrzyntec Zulawski's 1950 "Aria con Variazioni" and Janina Garscia's 1967 "Tema con Variazioni." Finally there is the one wind quartet in Tadeusz Baird's "Divertimento" for Flute, Clarinet, Oboe and Bassoon (1956).

Perhaps the Lutoslawski is a tad more Modern than the rest, and it is excellent listening, but throughout there is no drop off in quality. There is in fact a thoughtful articulateness in a highly engaging Neo-Classical mode for the whole of the music.

And kudos to the Sonora Winds (Bethany Gonella, flute, Stuart Sutter, oboe, Anastasiya Nyzkodub, clarinet, and Marta Troicki, bassoon) for a uniformly detailed and expressive sonance from first to last.

It should be a boon to all who follow Polish Modernists and wind chamber music. The music has a down-to-earth accessibility that should have general appeal as well. Nicely done! Sonora is a definite phenomena and the repertoire is a most pleasant surprise.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Civitas Ensemble, Jin Yin

Formed around a nucleus of Chicago-based instrumentalists, the Civitas Ensemble shows us what they are made of on Jin Yin (Cedille Records CDR 90000 193), a fascinating anthology of New Music by Contemporary Chinese composers.Three works are in their premiere performances, two are premieres for the arrangements made especially for the Civitas Ensemble. All are very worthwhile.

Ever since 2011 and the inception of the Civitas Ensemble, there has been an important nexus with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra via founding members Yuan-Qing Yu (Assistant Concertmaster of CSO), Kenneth Olsen (Assistant Principal Cello) J. Lawrie Bloom (CSO Bass Clarinet)--but also a general Chi-town nexus with additional locals, notably co-founding member Winston Choi who is head of the piano program at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts. As the current recording attests the ensemble has a pronounced dedication to the international dimensions of New Music.

All five compositions have in common the bridging of two cultural musical traditions--that of the legacy of Chinese Classical and that of "Western" New Music as developed and practiced over the years, and of course coming into present-day developments . Each work invents that bridge for itself. No two creative solutions are alike and what stands out is how each has real originality, a pronounced lack of formulaic solutions, and how well the Civitas Ensemble takes on the implications of each work and does a supremely imaginative and fully musical job bringing the music to life.

Jin Ying, Chinese for "Golden Tone," was spearheaded by Civitas principal Yuang-Qing Yu. It is Civitas' second album to date. "Golden Tone" points to the search for musical clarity of expression and pronounced substance that the album surely succeeds in realizing.

The opener "Five Elements" brings to us Zhou Long's lively music in a new arrangement that features well emergent solo parts for Yihan Cheng on the pipa, Cynthia Yeh on percussion and Emma Gerstein on flute and piccolo. The elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth were considered in ancient Chinese philosophy to comprise the building blocks of life itself. Each element gets an evocative movement. Especially notable is the deliberate, long-formed first movement "Metal" and the exciting energy of "Fire" during movement four.

Next up is Chen Yi's "Night Thoughts," now rescored and rearranged especially for the Civitas Ensemble. It was inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem and reflects the contemplative mood of the poem--lonely and nostalgic, open, serene.

The premiere recording of Lu Pei's "Scenes Through Window" has an irresistible rhythmic drive and complex cyclings-through that build logically and satisfyingly. The second half of the work gives a more calm and lyrical spin to the proceedings. Well done!

Vivian Fung's "Bird Song" begins ornately with violin and piano waxing eloquently with the equivalent of a series of warbles. Things gradually get more robust, more mercurial and on it goes nicely, stirringly.

The album ends with the seven-movement "Emanations of Tara" by Yao Chen, featuring once again the virtuoso Yihan Chen on the pipa. The scoring is masterful and rather neo-Impressionistic in a classic Chinese way with its glowing luminescence, its mysterious depths and breadths.

There is much to appreciate in the melding of the exemplary lucidity of the Civitas Ensemble and the dynamic Chinese-Modern brilliance of the five composers involved. This is one of the finest such offerings I have heard, the very best in a long time. Strongly recommended.















Friday, January 31, 2020

Michael G. Cunningham, Indiana Collectanea

In the person of US composer Michael G. Cunningham (b. 1937) we have a very prolific voice for the Contemporary, a man with a long and distinguished teaching career, a very large compositional catalog of works that deserve our attention, and eight albums of his music released on Navona Records, some of which I've gladly covered on these pages (type "Cunningham" in the search box above for those).

We now have his 9th release for the label, a compilation of live performances of Cunningham chamber works entitled Indiana Collectanea (Navona NV6270). On it we hear some 11 works of interest, recorded in concert at Indiana University between 1969 and 1973.

Performances give us a fine snapshot, a musically skilled and clear idea of the work at hand. The recording quality is generally good. The compositions show us a Cunningham fully formed, an original voice within the Dodecaphonic/post-Dodecaphonic, generally post-Tonal realms of Modernism as it stood when Cunningham was getting his doctorate (1973) at Indiana University.

Each work stands out as extremely well crafted and eloquently advanced. The chamber combinations are quite wide-ranging and take advantage of the vibrant sound colors and idiomatic phrasing possibilities available to each configuration. I will not attempt to discuss every`
work individually given time and space considerations, but they span the gamut from solo piano ("Piano Sonata," Op. 33), to piano and trombone ("Statements"), piano, clarinet and flute ("Triple Sonata"), violin, viola, cello ("Prisms"), violin, cello, bass ("Images"), violin, oboe, marimba, bass ("Noetical Rounds"), small percussion ensemble ("Polyphonies"), bass clarinet and harp ("Phases"), small brass ensemble ("Concertant"), three horns ("Terzett") and multiple instruments ("Scenario").

Like most all well conceived High Modernist works, the rhythmic and note-upon-note harmo-melodics come alive especially with multiple listens. Cunningham makes every note count in a program that stands out once one listens in this way. It's another fine outing from a composer who deserves wide recognition. Anyone in the Modernist camp or wishing to explore further classic later 20th century approaches should find this album an absorbing and rewarding thing. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Alban Berg, Complete Songs, Borgioni, Lombardi, Milhofer, Kho, Kohler, Farinelli

The art song in classical music qualifies as one of the more esoteric genres from the standpoint of the general music listening public. A music appreciation course might not devote much time to it, possibly none. It typically consists in performance of the no-frills musical essence via a trained voice, piano and poetic text. It does not have the story-theater-drama of opera, the broad spectrum of sound color of the symphony orchestra, etc. Yet of course some of the most wonderful music lives on in the classical song.

It the Modern period that is as true as ever. And it might help explain why Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (and to a lesser extent his Lulu) occupies the time of so many music lovers as a staple of the music of last century while his songs do not attract nearly as many listeners, nor garner as many recordings, performances, etc. Yet there have been other reasons, too, some unfortunate circumstances which recent decades have helped redress.

With a new box set, a very first recording of Berg's Complete Songs (Brilliant 95549 3-CDs) on the budget Brilliant label we have a chance to explore and consider the whole of it. There is a great deal and it is remarkable to hear it in these generally nicely turned performances.

The bulk of the output resides in the Jugendlieder, which as the liners tell us Berg composed between 1901 and 1908. Up until her death in 1976, widow Helene Berg had kept the songs shrouded in secrecy, forbidding their study or publication. Thereafter, between 1985 and 1987, many of the songs were finally published, Fischer-Dieskau in 1985 recorded 22 of them for EMI, and then as late as 2015 the remaining batch of Jugendlieder were finally published as well.

The Brilliant box is the very first recording of the complete Jugendlieder, and it takes up two and a half CDs, so that is saying a great deal. The music is of a consistently high level, allowing us to follow Berg's gradual evolution from a very sophisticated Late Romantic melodic-harmonic point of view to a gradual approach to the edge of tonality and beyond, which of course he was to realize fully in the later years, some of which we hear in the later songs, of which more below.

The complete Jugendlieder are a revelation. This compendious assortment shows us a young Berg remarkably assured and inventive. If he was not quite to scale the heights of his later work, he nonetheless holds his very own among lieder producers of the early 20th century, at least to my ears.

The remaining 19 lieder on Disk 3 continue unraveling choice Berg in more of the early and some rather wondrous later examples. That includes some sublime moments in the Sieben Fruhe Lieder, the three Vier Lieder, Op. 2, the five Altenberg Lieder, Op. 4, Schliesse mir die Augen beide (1925), the Lied der Lulu taken from the opera, and the spoken-piano Klagengesang von der edlen Frauen des Asan-Aga.

The text to the songs are not included in the booklet presumably for space and budget concerns but they are posted on the label's website.

Performances are all very good thanks to Mauro Borgioni, baritone, Elisabetta Lombardi, mezzo-soprano, Mark Milhofer, tenor, Myung Jea Kho, soprano, Stefanie Kohler, speaker, and Filippo Farinelli accompanying on piano. The recordings sound full and bright.

Anyone who loves Berg and/or lieder will no doubt find as I did a very great deal to appreciate and experience. This complete edition is nothing short of a revelation and something to return to frequently. Content and the nice budget price give every reason to grab this one. In its own way it constitutes a seminal recording event. Kudos to all involved.






Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Uriel Tsachor, Brahms in Transcription

Uriel Tsachor's recent piano solo album Brahms in Transcription (MSR Classics MS1721) gives us much to experience and contemplate. All transcriptions on the program were conceived as an adaptation of a work or movement into solo piano terms, trying to come as close as possible musically to the original work. (This in distinction from a Liszt, who might use the original music as a vehicle for a partly recomposed, somewhat reinterpreted new solo piano work.)

There are three categories of transcriptions featured on the program. One is Max Reger's transcriptions of the five slow movements from Brahms' four symphonies. Then there are solo piano transcriptions of Brahms' two-piano "Hungarian Dances," No. 7 and No. 1 by Brahms himself and Nos. 15-17 by Theodor Kirchner. Finally there are two relatively brief but fascinating transcriptions Brahms made of other composer's works--Schumann's Scherzo from the Op. 44 "Piano Quintet", and Gluck's Gavotte from Iphigenie en Aulide. The Reger and Kirchner transcriptions enjoy world premiere recordings here and they are most welcome additions to the Brahms discography.

For pianist Uriel Tsachor this recording is a culmination of a 40-year romance with the music of Brahms. And it shows. The performances are very sympathetic, poetically sensitive to every nuance, emotive but judicious in the proper weighing of every note.

With the Reger-Brahms slow movement symphonic transcriptions we have a kind of steady-state triumph of the of course extraordinary beauty of the Brahm's original orchestral movements coupled with a detailed, idiomatically pianistic re-scoring brilliance by Reger--and then some extraordinarily expressive performances by Maestro Tsachor. It is impossible to choose a favorite but the Adagio from "Symphony No. 2" does seem especially inspired all around, with just the right amount of rubato to make the piano sing. But then the Andante and the Poco Allegretto from No. 3 seem nearly as ravishing. Really all are transcendent, a joy to hear.

The later "Hungarian Dances" in their original two-piano form are filled with complexities and ornamentations to the extent that rethinking them for a single solo piano was hardly a simple matter. Brahms himself performed them solo, reportedly with a good deal of panache, but his on-the-spot improvisational decisions on how they were to sound he found were not conducive to freezing in written form. After tackling No. 7 he left off. Kirchner's Nos. 15-17 convey the folkish charm and complex figurations quite well. They make for very enjoyable listening, a nice change in mood in alternation with the symphonic movements and in the end a virtuoso outing that Tsachor takes in stride, with true musicality. We also get to hear Brahms' own transcription version of No. 1, nicely played.

Finally there are the encore-like additions of the two short examples of Brahms' transcriptions of some choice Schumann and Gluck morsels that leave one feeling content and rewarded.

Anyone who loves Brahms and also loves a nicely played piano program a little off the well-beaten track should find this a good bet. Uriel Tsachor gives us state-of-the-art expressive brightness from first-to-last. Bravo.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Joshua Pierce, Bravura, Favorite Showpieces for Piano and Orchestra, Chopin, Ellington, Gershwin, Liszt, etc.

Some albums end up pleasing by way of a number of factors one cannot always predict before listening. Pianist Joshua Pierce and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor give us Bravura: Favorite Showpieces for Piano & Orchestra (MSR Classics MS 1640). It is for me a nice surprise in this way.

It is a matter in this case of a combination of fine performances and an interesting set of repertoire choices. Of the eight showcase works for piano and orchestra there are first of all four 19th Century Romantic staples that have been well appreciated by general audiences over the years--in order of appearance to start off this grouping there is Frederic Chopin's early but vibrant "Variations on Mozart's 'La ci darem la mano'" of 1830. Then there is Saint-Saens' lighthearted little "Caprice-Valse 'Wedding Cake'" of 1885. Next in sequence is Franz Liszt's exuberant reworking of Weber on the "Polonaise Brilliante" of 1851. Finally the program concludes with a charming Henry Litolff "Scherzo from 'Concerto Symphonique No. 4'" of 1852.

If the program merely continued in this vein we would have some bright and bubbly fare, very well handled by Pierce and company. But then there are additions to the program that give it all a slightly different twist. One is a nicely done version of Richard Addinisell's (1904-1977) "Warsaw Concerto" (1941). It is a sort of post-Rachmaninoff-ian splash of Romantic color that was quite popular and often performed in my childhood but rather less played today. It strikes a nostalgic chord with me but then it is worth hearing in this performance regardless.

The three additional works on the program give us a good sampling of bravura 20th century piano-orchestral showpieces that have a pronounced older jazz flavor. One is in a first, world premiere recording, a 1977 Paul Turok composition entitled "Ragtime Caprice."  It has a delightful sort of patina. Then we get to hear a rather luminous version of Gershwin's 1934 "Variations on 'I Got Rhythm.'" which sounds current, fresh and vital in this rendition. Finally and most happily we have a very welcome version of Duke Ellington's "New World A-Comin'" in its orchestral concerto guise, in the final version as arranged and edited by Maurice Peress. It sounds every bit as good as one might hope for, rousing and dazzling, an Ellington evergreen.

In the end the program fascinates and percolates with excellent energy from Pierce and orchestra. It is music that at times is somewhat "light" but that in the best sense of also being fun. It is a pleasure to hear this. Give it a spin and see if it does not coax a smile or two out of you as you listen.

Pedro Faria Gomes, Chamber Works

In the person of Portuguese composer Pedro Faria Gomes (b. 1979), at least as we hear on the engaging new collection Chamber Works (Naxos 8.579029), there is at times a kind of contemplative introspection in common with Erik Satie and Morton Feldman. Yet in Gomes we have an original harmonic-melodic Modernist approach throughout that has a definite original spin, so it would be a mistake to think of Gomes as a member of either "school" per se. He stands apart as his own voice.

Eight compositions grace the program, five of them in premiere recordings. Each is for a small instrumental configuration and it varies from piece-to-piece. The performances are uniformly fine, featuring at various times Sarah Thurlow on clarinet, Carla Santos on violin, Nancy Johnson on viola, Miguel Fernandes on cello, and Saul Picado on piano.

Gomes was born in Lisbon and from an early age studied piano and eventually composition there before getting his postgraduate degrees at the Royal College of Music in London. He taught in Portugal for eight years then did the same for a time in Hong Kong. He currently is a lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales.

The eight works were written between 2008 and 2018. They hang together stylistically as being of a consistent sound and outlook. Though "Memoria" (2012) for clarinet and piano and the "Sonata" (2018) for violin and piano make some use of Portuguese folk themes the overall thrust of the music throughout is in the idiom of Contemporary chamber expression, with a particular brand of harmonic sophistication that defies easy comparison and then often too carries a very personal introspection, at times rather broadly spacious, somewhat quiet and dream-like. And then again there are movements and passages at times expressionistically more boisterous as well, as we hear in parts of the "Sonata."

The music has a sort of deep seriousness,  a subtle and somewhat esoteric quality that can be an important aspect of the present-day chamber music approach since last century and artists like Bartok.

Some fine clarinet writing distinguishes "Memoria" for clarinet and piano, "Thanatos" (2008) for clarinet, violin, viola and cello, "Returning" (2010) for clarinet, violin and piano and finally the rather stunning five movement "Nachtmusik" (2012) for clarinet and piano. That leaves for mention the very short "Escape" (2007) for solo piano, "Espera" (2009) for viola and piano and "Elegia" (2007) for cello. The works all show a high caliber of imagination and workmanship.

As the CD jacket notes tell us in some detail, the works address the idea of time as played out in "memory, change and waiting." For that I refer you to the notes and the experience of deep listening that this offering provides in rich abundance.

Pedro Faria Gomes shows us a fine and original new voice on Chamber Works. The album maps out a series of brilliances that anyone serious about Modern Chamber Music will want to experience. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Boris Tishchenko Complete Works for Harp, Ionello Marinutsa, International Parisian Symphony Orchestra, Mikhail Sugako

Latter-day Russian Modernist composer Boris Tishchenko (1939-2010) shows us some definite traction on the recent Complete Works for Harp (Naxos 8.579048). It turns out that the whole harp output fits handily on a single 53-minute CD. Happily the music has no shortage of bright moments within a general outline of significant original soundings. It is a good example of why it is important to keep up with the constant flow of forthcoming New Music.

Harpist Ionella Marinutsa comes through with elegance and inspiration, especially for the main event, the 40-some-odd minute "Harp Concerto, Op. 69" (1977) which also brings to our ears nicely the International Parisian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Mikhail Sugako.

The Concerto has a deliberate quality at times, building additive blocks of musical language that owe something to Stravinsky, Varese, Shostakovich and Messiaen in the way they parse out yet the logic of the unfolding and the content is immanently Tishchenko-esque at root. There are especially additive movements among the five and they form critical parts of the musical exegesis. Chamber and orchestral elements combine and interchange in those sections, with smaller instrumental combinations giving way to the larger ones marking climactic increases in density. But then there are various returns of the solo textures throughout and it all makes a special sense. The interplay of solo instruments (especially harp) and orchestral thickets expands in time into an eloquence that holds its own,

The syntax shifts out of the additive mode for a denser texture and sometimes quite virtuoso high expression from harp and orchestra. The fourth movement features an unexpected lyric wordless vocal that nicely alters the mix (and thanks to soprano Anara Khassenova the performance level is high).

The entire concerto rings forward with an originality that feels as Russian as it does cosmopolitan. With repeated listens it takes on a monumental quality and consistently stands out as singular and engaging.

The two short chamber works are songful vehicles for soprano (Khassenova), harp (Marinutsa) and either flute (Artem Naumenko) on "To My Brother,' (1986) or organ (Anna Homenya) on "Testament" (1986). Both are sophisticated yet lyrically engaging and hold listener interest even after more than a few listens.

I found that by the third time through or so the CD began to take on a significance that affirmed the centrality of the New Music universe as a place to witness the bold step forward. It all hangs together increasingly with further passes and serves to remind us why Tishenko has been considered as as a spiritual successor to Shostakovitch. Whatever one might decide (and I have not heard enough to say right now) he shows himself brightly on this program. Bravo! Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Paul Moravec, Sanctuary Road, Oratorio Society of New York, Kent Tritle

Paul Moravec (b 1957) chose wisely when he decided to pay homage to William Still for his heroic role as a "conductor" and observer of the Underground Railroad and its secret network. Still helped along the safe transport and eventual freedom of more than 900 fugitive slaves. Moravec has collaborated with librettist Mark Campbell in the resultant Sanctuary Road, An oratorio based on the writings of William Still (Naxos 8.559884).

I note with this review post the world premiere performance and recording from the 2018 Carnegie Hall  debut in release just now on Naxos. It gives our ears a representative and spirited indication of the work. After a number of listens I report in to you on my impressions.

Kent Tritle most capably conducts and directs the Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra as they mesh with the five vocalists in their respective solo roles. The proceedings were well recorded. Along with a 20-minute discussion that follows, the performance sequence takes up a full CD. There is much music of interest to be explored.

The oratorio focuses on the dramatic, poetic yet matter-of-fact musical setting of Mark Campbell's libretto, which in turn takes its cue from Afro-American abolutionist William Still's detailed and moving documentary writing. Still left us an invaluable and moving record of the circumstances, participants and daunting challenges faced by the brilliantly heroic facilitators of the often perilous operations of the Railroad from the beginning-to-mid 19th century.

Still as an important Underground Railroad "conductor" himself  was eyewitness to a good bit of it from his Philadelphia location. We hear in the oratorio testimonial texts inspired by his writings (principally The Underground Railroad Records) on the biographical situations of those involved, the bold and often brilliant disguises and ruses that facilitated escape to the North, and the extraordinary courage of all involved.

Musically all this takes place in a series of vignettes that alternately collage myriads of participant names, circumstances, places with contrasting, more detailed scene descriptions, including those experiences Still himself had documenting and facilitating while reflecting on it all.

Ultimately a kind of deserved  triumphal "huzzah" concludes the oratorio with the amassed cast.

This is musically a kind of tonal, middle-of-the-road styling, through-composed throughout without vestiges of either Minimalist repetition or High Modernist harmonic edginess. Yet that is certainly not to say that the music is somehow generic. It is not. It is filled with individual and memorable moments more with a black-and-white musical-documentary presence than with multi-technicolor sound emanations. There is a plainness at times that suits the need to recognize the sheer unvarnished drama of the period and its search to achieve abolutionist justice.

The power and clarity of the scoring of vocal and orchestral parts prevails and in the end wins the day.

So I must say there is a kind of rightness to the way the musical content lays out. It is extremely well crafted in musical terms and it sets off the text so that the experience is commemorative, rightly honoring, remembering but of course still providing a history-as-art experience. I come away with a feeling of satisfaction, of approval. You should hear this.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Krzysztof Meyer, Chansons d'un reveur solitaire, Symphony No. 8 "Sinfonia da requiem", Claudia Barainsky, Lukasz Borowicz, Choir of Szymanowski Philharmonic, Polish National Rado Symphony Orchestra Katowice

Polish Modernist composer Krysztof Meyer (b 1943) has bit-by-bit commanded my attention on these pages as I gradually have surveyed some notable examples of his music (type his name in the search box above for reviews). What I have covered centers around his chamber output, mostly as a product of what came available for review in years past. Today I am happy to report in on an album of two later compositions for larger ensembles, namely the Chansons d'un reveur solitaire, Op. 116 for soprano (Claudia Barainsky) and symphony orchestra (The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice under Lukasz Borowicz) and the Symphony No. 8 "Sinfonia da requiem," Op. 111 for orchestra and choir (the Mixed Choir of the Karol Szymanowski Philharmonic in Krakow, Teresa Majka-Pacanek, choirmistress) (DUX 1569).

Meyer studied composition with Penderecki, Nadia Boulanger and Lutoslawski. He had a full career teaching theory and composition in Poland before retiring in 2008.

The two compositions we hear on the current release are revelations, keys to understanding something of later-period Meyer, deeply expressive and heartfelt. They show us a fully original voice, a master craftsman and musical inventor of the first caliber.

The Chansons d'un reveur solitaire, Op. 116 is built upon poetic texts that portray as the title suggests personal metaphorical-experiential journeys taken through memory and feeling, in the end each leaving the subject in an enriched psychic-emotional state. Meyer began work on this cycle with a definite idea of each of the five songs in terms of sound color and dramatic content. Only then did he search for the proper poetic expressions, texts that fit what he was after.

And indeed because of this "pre-selection" the intensely revealing music and its very memorable dialog between soprano and orchestra comes through vividly whether the poetic content is directly grasped or not. There is a musical logic to the unfolding both original and unmistakably singular. Soprano Barainsky and the Polish National Radio Symphony under Borowicz distinguish themselves as they flesh out the exploratory, moody music pleasingly well, as they bring out the special character of each of the five movements.

The "Sinfonia da requiem" makes use of a mixed choir in place of the soprano and maps out somber yet sometimes mysteriously present-ful musical terrain. It addresses expressively and in Modern musical terms the tragedy of the Holocaust, more specifically in recent years the return of antisemitism and a growing indifference to the plain fact of the horror of it all. The holocaust poetry of Adam Zagajewski serves as the textual fulcrum point. Like the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy the function of the choir in this work is as commentator, not as personal witness and confessor as was the case in the Chansons. Instead we engage in the realization of conscience with the emotions brought up and expressed in the orchestra. It is poignant, touching music.

This is a release anyone interested in the Modern Polish and Eastern European scene should hear. It serves notice that Krzysztof Meyer remains an essential voice of today.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Art of Carol Lieberman, Volume 2, Modern Violin, von Dohnanyi, Carter, Hovhaness, Piston, Messiaen

We celebrate nearly 50 years of recordings by the great violinist Carol Lieberman in a retrospective of her work, now with an Art of Carol Lieberman, Volume 2, Modern Violin (Centaur CRC 3702). Over the years she has excelled as an original instrument Baroque violinist and for the Modern repertoire as well. Volume 2 nicely addresses the latter with a wide ranging anthology that spans a broad swatch of musical avenues from von Donanyi to Elliott Carter by way of Hovhaness, Piston and Messiaen. The common thread is Ms. Lieberman's extraordinarily clarity and full-feeling readings, flowering rather gloriously without undue sentiment, an expression of human-kindness in music you might say.

The album opens with splendidly angular and somewhat exotic readings of von Dohnanyi's op.21 "Sonata for Violin and Piano" and the "Serenade for String Trio" op. 10. From there we jump to the extraordinarily declamatory "Riconoscenza (Per Goffredo Petrassi) for Solo Violin" from Elliot Carter. Never has Carter sounded more human, heroic yet somehow vulnerable like all of us can be. It is part of Lieberman's brilliance that she can give us the Modern World in all its multifarious givenness--the advanced yet intensely personal, the committed yet still searching, not entirely comfortable with or complacent about the new horizon ahead. Or at least that is what comes to me as I listen gladly.

From there we go to two works featuring violin and harpsichord (with Mark Kroll)--Hovhaness's brief three movement folkish, advanced Modern and songful presence on the "Duet for Harpsichord" and the workaday Modern terse eloquence of Walter Piston's "Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord."

The high-water mark of it all is the concluding three movement excerpt of Messiaen's haunting "Quartet for the End of Time" featuring Carol at her best with Geoffrey Burleson on piano, Bruce Creditor on clarinet and David Finch on cello. I've heard a fair number of performances of this beautiful work but none quite as heartful and touching--and Carol's emotive stance on it is largely responsible for that, though everyone locks into the music with a great deal of both sadness and dash, and that somehow fits the magic of Messiaen's intentions quite well

It is a conclusion one does not listen to without a rare feeling of fitness. of an apt summing up of Carol Lieberman's nearly ethical consistency of aesthetic. A remarkable disc all around.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Nino Rota, Complete Solo Piano Works I, Eleanor Hodgkinson

Nino Rota (1911-1979) will ever be remembered by the general public as the composer of the soundtracks for the first two Godfather films. What makes that music so memorable and accessible is its immediacy, emotive strength and melodic-harmonic power to communicate. It is a testament to such communicative directness that he wrote the music for more than 150 films during his 46-year career.

Beyond that vast output we have Nino Rota the composer of Modern concert music. All the elements that made him so effective in soundtrack writing also factor into his non-soundtrack creations. Again the quantity is substantial, with ten operas, music for theater and a full spectrum of orchestral and chamber works.

All this is clear when listening to Rota's inaugural volume of Complete Solo Piano Works 1 (Grand Piano GP827). On it we have pianist Eleanor Hodgkinson effectively holding forth with a good deal of charm for a series of three works--"15 Preludes" (1964), "Fantasia in G" (1944-45), and his "7 Difficult Pieces for Children" (1971).

The music stands out for its masterful workmanship, its creatively playful, cosmopolitan demeanor, its inventive melodic-harmonic stance. Carl Alexander Vincent in the liners for this album rightly underscores the influence of his teachers Pizzetti and Casella in developing Rota's sophisticated experiential approach. Indeed there is a genetic affinity to be heard though Rota comes through in the end as his own voice.

The "Fantasia" has Neo-Romantic elements surely. They are effectively bookended by the Neo-Classicism in the post-Prokofiev "Preludes" and the disarmingly direct "Children's Pieces."

The music grows on one the more one listens so that at the end a cogently satisfying feeling is to be had after assimilating the music with repeated hearings. Part of that has to do with Hodgkinson's no-nonsense grasp of the musical essence of these pieces. Then of course she provides for us direct access to the substantial merit of the music.

Strongly recommended for all who seek to assimilate fully the Modern Italian legacy. I look forward to future volumes!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Allan Gravgaard Madsen, Nachtmusik, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, For Violin and Orchestra

Today we have World Premier recordings of two Danish concertante works from our present century. The first is Nachtmusik by the still young (b. 1984) Allan Gravgaard Madsen. The second is For Violin and Orchestra by the late (1932-2016) New Music master Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Da Capo 8.226138). Both are well handled by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ryan Bancroft (for the Madsen) or Nicholas Collon (for the Gudmundsen-Holmgreen). Danish National Symphony concertmaster Christina Astrand gives life to the solo violin part in both works. For Nachtmusik she is joined by pianist Per Solo for the dual role. Both acquit themselves well.

The two works contrast nicely and set one another off.

Madsen's Nachtmusik pivots around a single note taken up in various ways by solo piano, solo violin and orchestra. Gradually as the color of the noting continually shifts other tones are introduced and multiple tempos criss-cross and intersect for a kind of musical mobile. By the second movement a dominant tempo prevails as colors enter and exit dynamically. The brief final movement changes the central pitch and plays delightfully with a diatonic series taken up in turns by all concerned.

Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's For Violin and Orchestra begins with a full chromatic universe of notes taken up by solo violin and orchestra in a tumbling hocket-klangfarben sort of way and then gradually a central sequential motif emerges around which all enter upon and retreat from in time, only to enter upon a more open anarchy of diatonic and sometimes blue note and chromatic extra-tone before returning to the motif again. The solo violin affords a kind of answering to the motif in a dialogic drama. It is tour de force tone painting and affords a lively rejoiner to the particular insistence of Nachtmusik.

In all we get two bird's-eye views of the Pomo Modern Danish concertante possibilities in the present day. Both composers find their own manner of creating a post-Minimalist dialectic between "same" and "different" that does not resort to classical form but instead forges forward each in its own way. Happily recommended for new adventure music seekers.


Josef Haydn, Tullochgorum, Scottish Songs, The Poker Club Band, Masako Art

Josef Haydn harmonized, arranged and otherwise re-situated over 400 traditional Scottish song-melodies in his lifetime. Though he never visited Scotland clearly he had a great sympathy for the music as can be attested on the recent volume Tullochgorum, Scottish Songs (BIS 2471). What sets this volume apart is that harpist Masako Art has taken Haydn's song arrangements (plus several by contemporaries John Elouis, Francois de Fossa, Niel Gow) and either created or adapted an existing harp part for the Poker Club Band ensemble of harp, guitar, violin and cello, with James Graham on vocals plus some related instrumental works.

The presence of the harp parts throughout and the consistent interplay of the ensemble, all gives the music a more Scottish folk flavor than otherwise yet follows the Classical harmonizations faithfully.

It is in the end a great musical idea, and a tribute to Haydn's brilliance as well as the sparkling beauty of traditional Scottish folk melody. It is a most worthy listen from start to finish. An outstanding experience. Bravo Masako Art and the Poker Club Band! Bravo Haydn!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Eugene Goossens, Symphony No. 2, Phantasy Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Tasmin Little, Sir Andrew Davis, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) is perhaps generally better known today for his legacy as a conductor than as a composer. Yet a full-blown composer he surely was, as we can profitably hear on today's CD that features his Symphony No. 2 and the Phantasy Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Chandos GHSA 5193).

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra faithfully through the intricacies and bold sweep of the scores. Tasmin Little does a fine job realizing the solo violin part for the Concerto.

The liners to the album give us the details as to his early and full involvement with composition, with  works for orchestra, solo piano, chamber ensembles and eventually several operas. By the time the two works on the album were completed (1942-45 for the Symphony, 1946-48 with a 1958 revision for the Concerto) he was a well-burnished, mature voice, fully formed, a singular compositional force. One occasionally hears an influence now and again--sometimes for example the flute-piccolo writing in the Symphony sometimes reminds slightly of Shostakovich's 7th. But on the whole we get pure Goossens--expanded tonal, Modern, inventive, well orchestrated, an original.

The symphony was largely written while Goossens held down a conducting position in the USA during the WWII years, It is not meant to be programmatic yet it reflects the mood of its time dramatically. It has gravitas.

The Concerto was written in 1945-6 for Jascha Heifetz--who apparently did not favor it so it did not receive proper performances until 1959-60. By then some critics felt that Goossens' music was not advanced enough for the times, sadly, so it did not make a great splash. The recording at hand is apparently the first performance since then. It is a beautiful work that surely deserves more attention and we are fortunate to have this first-rate reading to return to.

Both works have much to recommend them. Neither directly avant garde nor reservedly conservative, these works give us prime Goossens in excellent performances. It turns out that is a very nice thing indeed. Strongly recommended.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Elisabeth Klein, New Nordic Piano Music, From the LP Years

Danacord Records has embarked on a series of re-released albums originally on vinyl in its "From the LP Years" series. One in the initial batch is this fine recording by Elisabeth Klein entitled Nordic Piano Music (Danacord DACOCD 854).

If we think of the piano music of Erik Satie, Bela Bartok, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, and Karlheinz Stockhausen (and for that matter Cecil Taylor) as an important subset of examples of 20th century musico-pianistic ways, the phrase "character pieces" comes to mind (to me). Yet I mean that here in the sense that the composers-piano people are in a way important "character actors" in the modern drama of musical unfolding. Perhaps they are more correctly categorized as intensely personal, original piano stylistic vehicles, innovators for what the music has in its note-ful content but also in their own ways developmental brilliances, masters of setting into play unusual juxtapositions of conventional and/or extended techniques.

The eight composers and nine composition sets on the original LP at hand (plus for the CD two bonus works) have something in common with these "personality"-"character" innovators. For nearly all the works have a special personal sound and make use at times of contrasts in conventional and extended techniques plus contrasts in register, etc.

What brings it all together is the wonderfully animated way that Elisabeth Klein realizes each work. It is telling, as the jacket notes inform us, that each of the composers "had a close and intense working relationship" with the pianist. It helps explain how each of the eleven composers appear before us in a fully Expressionistic way, filled with staccato exclamations, dreamy asides, open sonics, spatial significance.

And the way Elisabeth Klein makes the most of the expressive possibilities of each work goes along of course with that close working-out-together mode. It is perhaps a confirmation to read that Ms. Klein was known for her interpretations of both Stockhausen and Crumb. And in her student days she studied with Bela Bartok.

Her career was a full and productive one and we lost a great deal when she left our lives in 2004. As the liners tell us she was a "constant inspiration to composers, urging them to find new ways to use the piano." In addition to lecturing and concertizing in Oslo she triumphantly concertized all over Europe, the US, Israel and Mexico.

This album came about when in 1986 Elisabeth Klein with the help of Danish composer Nils Holger Petersen made a recording at the Hovikodden Art Center in Oslo. Danacord eagerly jumped at the chance to put it out and so the record appeared. Now we have it available again in a fine analog-to- digital transfer. There is much excellence to consider on this album.

But there is simply too much music to allow a work-by-work breakdown. Suffice to say we get to hear some gems by the aforementioned Petersen (1985, 1986), then works by Per Christian Jacobsen (1975), Maj Sonstevold (1963), Mikael Edlund (1984), Carin Malmloff-Forssling (1979), Gudrun Lund (1985), Kauko Kuosma (1983, 1984), Folke Stromholm (1977), and then on the bonus performances from 1975 we have works by Poul Ruders (1967) and Karl Aage Rasmussen (1965).

The works are quite interesting and the performances stellar. This one is a real sleeper, well worth investigating.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Charles-Marie Widor, Organ Symphonies 1, Symphonies 1 and 2, Op. 13, Wolfgang Rubsam

Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) did as much to advance the French Organ School as anyone. I am hard-pressed to think of any series of works quite as ambitious (and successfully so) as his Ten Organ Symphonies. His music continues to inspire. Organist Wolfgang Rubsam embarks on a new cycle for us with the inaugural Organ Symphonies 1 (Naxos 8.5741`61) which consists of his Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 13.  

Christian von Blohn in his thoughtful liners to this first volume reminds us that the Op. 13 works begin the long series of developments in the ten symphonies with regally extended Neo-classical suite-like elements and some vibrant expressions of orchestrational organ sound colors, registrational innovations that of course were to mark off the symphonic series as a whole.

The First Symphony pays homage to Bach from the start. The opening prelude is a most riveting contrapuntal movement that sets the stage for the many swings in color, mood and texture that sets the seven movement work off as already innovative and in the end satisfying. The long and stately "Marche pontificale" stands out as a fine instance of the sort of processional music Widor was undoubtedly called upon to play in the course of services at the Saint-Sulpice in Paris, which he did for some 64 years. The finale forms a fugal high point of the work and sends us off in style.

The Second Symphony has breadth and depth as well even if it is another early example.The long andante rings out on repeated listens and the finale gives us the first of the molto perpetual closings and sounds as exciting as it must have when first performed.

The rebuilt organ at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago sounds grand, as grand as it did when I attended there and experienced its mighty sweep on more than one occasion. Wolfgang Rubsam gives us a very well-balanced reading of the works, measured and well-considered yet as dynamically robust as needed when called upon to burst forth.

It is a promising beginning to the new cycle and a bargain at the Naxos price. Surely recommended. All organ enthusiasts should have the cycle and so too those just exploring the French School for the first time. These opening symphonies stand out after repeated exposure despite how they were the first. Bravo!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner, Rachel Mercer, Our Strength, Our Song, Music By Canadian Women Composers

As the world continues to evolve we see much more attention paid to women composers than earlier generations did. Half the world is made up of women after all and equal opportunity-recognition has been long overdue. Today's musical selection, Our Strength, Our Song (Centrediscs 27719) looks at the music of some six Canadian women, three among the living, and two among those who have left us in 2000, one in 2019.

The program is unusual in that all the works were written for the intimate chamber setting of violin and cello duo. They are played beautifully by the sister team of Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner and Rachel Mercer, on violin and cello respectively.

The music stands out for its intensive abundance of musical ideas and a kind of unpretentious purity. All the works have an uncompromising attention to contemporary expression. None would qualify as an encore sort of charmer, though the music certainly has plenty of charm each in its own way. It is music on the composer's terms and all the better for it. It is music that very much suits this duo in its desire to play music of importance and significance. They do.

Of the six compositions featured here there are five world premier recordings and three commissioned works. They span some 40 years of music at the same time as Akemi and Rachel celebrate some 40ish years of life on earth. The two have played together in various guises since childhood so that by this point they are acutely attuned to one another. They give a seamless and intrinsic closeness to the two-part interplay that reflects both the scarceness of such a sisterly length and intensity of musical togetherness but too is a testament to their mutual performative excellence.

Above all we get a chance to experience fine realizations of works by composers some of us might not otherwise know. Violet Archer (1913-2000), Jean Coulthard (1908-2000) and Rebekah Cummings (1980-2019)  head up the earlier contingent with their contrasting Modern Neo-Romantic "Four Duets" (1979) and "Duo Sonata" (1989), respectively (Archer and Coulthard), and the involved anthemics of "Our Strength, Our Song" (2018) by Cummings.

Living women composers of stature chime in with Jocelyn Morlock and her "Serpentine Paths" (2019), Barbara Monk Feldman and her "Pour un Nuage Violet" (1998) and finally Alice Ping Yee Ho and the "Kagura Fantasy" (2018).

Each work explores quite nicely the extensive color and tonal possibilities of a labor-intensive but always supremely musical virtuoso interplay between violin and cello.

The music and performances stand out. They reward a close listening with the sort of deep chamber complexities that mark the best of such things. And it at the same time makes us all the more eager to hear more of Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner and Rachel Mercer.

Happily recommended. Viva Canadian women in music today!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Afterimage, String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Eli Spindel

A recurring element in the most Modern of New Music channels I have been calling "the Old in the New," referring to composers of today re-appropriating or being inspired by earlier music in a process that one way or another transforms older stylistic elements into a newly minted kind of Modernity. With the New Year we have another interesting example in Afterimage (Furious Artisans FACD 6823). On it the Brooklyn String Orchestra under Eli Spindel presents the music of Christopher Cerrone and Jacob Cooper--based in whole or in part on music by, respectively, Niccolo Paganini and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.

The key is what "based on" is all about, naturally. Each work seeks a somewhat different way of transforming the past. As Eli Spindel aptly puts it in the liner notes to the album, both "take as their starting point a single moment from an older work and--through processes of repetition, distortion, and, in the case of [Pergolesi's] Sabat Mater, extreme slow motion--create a completely new soundscape, like opening up a small door into an unfamiliar world."

To open the program Christopher Cerrone begins his "High Windows" by making use of a sampled fragment of Paganini's Caprice No. 6 "The Trill"  for Solo Violin. It forms the initial moment of the extended work for the Argus Quartet and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn. But then the middle section quotes from an earlier Cerrone work ("Hoyt--Schermerhorn" for piano and electronics) and ultimately thrives as an independent composition based on traditional Sonata Form--but also draws connotations from a poem by Philip Larkin about tumultuous youth.

The multi-strandedness of meaning is further underscored as the whole expresses the composer's inspiration from the stained-glass windows of  St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn, the initial venue for which the piece was written and performed. Three separate sections unfold and ultimately have their say.

Ultimately it is all about the musical and personal friendships and artistic commingling that occurred as composer, orchestra, conductor and the original small group (the Toomai String Quintet) involved themselves in the work. Virtually all were initially engaged as both colleagues and friends, then grew into the work in workshops where sections of the score were hammered out.  There followed a further articulation of the actuality of the music through the four public performances that have taken place since the work was completed after that gestation period of 2013. And now of course there is this recording as a further development.

The second and more lengthy of the two works here, Jacob Cooper's Pergolesi-based "Sabat Mater Dolorosa" (2009) is a vast time stretching and alteration/transformation of the original Baroque score to become like a moment stopped in time, like a virtually endless experience of the moment of life departure, like the maternal grief of Mary on the death of Jesus, only de-sacralized to a secular inner being of sorts. The vocal parts for soprano and mezzo-soprano, nicely handled by Melissa Hughes and Kate Maroney, segue with the endlessly pivoting orchestra around sustained progression points nearly stopped in time and space. It is exceedingly beautiful.

Finishing off the program and letting us take stock of what came before are the real-time performances of the fragments involved in the works--the Paganini Trill Caprice (with the solo violin part well played by Rachel Lee Priday) and the single movement from Pergolesi's Sabat (performed by Hughes, Maroney and the SOB). And so we come full circle back to a real-time past after a lengthy excursion through suspended presents, through multiple moments of now.

It is a rather extraordinary program in a rather extraordinary performance. Kudos!



Steven Mackey, Time Release, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The latest volume of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project finds Gil Rose directing the orchestra for a selection of interesting and contrasting works by Steven Mackey (b 1956). It is entitled Time Release (BMOP 1068) after the 2005 work that is a centerpiece of the program.

Four pieces comprise the whole and flesh out a vision of Mackey's vivid orchestral palette, and in the process give us an architectonic sense of layering and rhythmic shape. The works span a near decade--from the aforementioned 2005 title piece to the program opening "Urban Ocean" of 2013.

The dimensionality of the music is apparent from the first strains of "Urban Ocean." Mackey rightly calls attention in the liners to the "painterly" use of tone and color in the work, with correspondingly less motivic, rhythmic, or harmonic syntax per se. The composer envisions "powerful yet invisible waves" churning underneath the surface and then breaking on the beach. In that way the music suggests a natural, cyclical process more than linear travel from point a to point b.

"Time Release" is the longest of the four works at more than 30 minutes broken into four movements. The solo percussion part is given palpable animate life by Colin Currie. It showcases especially the solo marimba as a mature and vibrantly polyphonic vehicle in poignant interaction with the orchestra for a music at once, in the words of the composer, "distinctive and soulful."

"Tonic" (2011) comes together out of a harmony built from "leading" and "complimentary" notes more than a note-for-note counterpoint, out of a foreground harmony of some simplicity with a background shadow harmony of greater complexity. The effect is mesmerizing in ways that strike an original pose. This is not Minimalism but you could say that it motors along a parallel highway. It whirs at times cylindrically but not at all formulaically. There is at root something between a series of riffs and a series of sequences, yet they hang together in their own way and do not exactly repeat so much as at some point complete. 

The concluding "Turn the Key" (2006) gives us a rhythmic dance-like figure redolent of Latin American music that the composer recalled hearing in Miami and so found appropriate for this commissioned work to mark the opening of a new performance center in the city. There is a movement forward continually like a sequence of unique spokes on a wheel. It is a fitting end-piece to a provocatively personal program of orchestral gems.

Steven Mackey has harnessed his own idiomatic way with Time Release. You must of course listen for yourself but I suspect and trust that you will find it all well worth your listening effort as I have. I find that the more I listen the more this music stands out as another way to go, a personal orchestrality that is Modern but not predictably that. All the better for it. I very much recommend you listen closely at least several times and map out your own conclusions from the experience. Bravissimo!


Thursday, January 2, 2020

Modulation Necklace, New Music from Armenia

Those who know what typical Armenian Folk and Classical Music sounds like, a distinctive minor-modal signature that marks it all its own--will no doubt almost involuntarily listen for it in a new anthology of New Music from Armenia, entitled Modulation Necklace (New Focus Recordings FCR244).  On that basis the listener may find on first blush that the New Music component of the subtitle tends to move forward into your listening self first. Only then perhaps does the "from Armenia" part of the title thrust itself into your listening span.

Part of that is that the opening work "Quasi Harena Maris" by Artur Avanesov is tonal but not exactly obviously Armenian in sections of the first listen. With "Novelette" by Ashot Zohrabyan we recognize more of the sort of Armenian syntax we might expect, tempered surely with New Music elements.

And so it goes throughout this interesting collection, onwards to Michel Petrossian's "A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire" for piano trio with its sprawling in-and-out of time, stop-and-go, post Serialist diffusiveness conjoined with momentary traces of folkish elements.

A highlight is Artashes Kartalyan's "Tekeyan Triptych" for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. It is haunting, lyrical, rich in invention, at points notably minor-inflected.

Ashot Kartalyan's "Suite for Saxophone and Percussion" takes an idiomatic turn into the special qualities available in a duet of this sort. The soprano sax-percussion interaction is decidedly "jazzy" and nicely so. It is perhaps a bit dance-like as well.

And at the end Avanesov returns with himself at the solo piano for the seven part "Selected works from cycle 'Feux Follets.'" It has an Armenian rootedness at times in its declamatory style.

Taken altogether Modulation Necklace retains relevance and interest throughout. I recommend it for anyone interested in Armenian sounds and New Music from Middle Eastern-Eastern European avenues. It is a most stimulating set.