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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Raffi Besalyan, The Sound of Black & White, Piano Music of Khachaturian, Levant and Gershwin

 

An album of piano music is a matter of diverse elements, always. The composer(s), the works and how they set each other off, the period of music and/or social-cultural history and how that illuminates the program perhaps, and of course the pianist. In today's example we get an extraordinary pianist playing repertoire for which he seems especially suited. Raffi Besalyan bursts forward and literally crackles with energy (to mix a metaphor) on his latest, The Sound of Black and White (Sono Luminus  DSL-2249).

The title implies some kind of period artsiness, perhaps a noir attitude. That is not so far fetched an assertion with the George Gershwin and Oscar Levant kind of Jazzy Modernism, perhaps somewhat less true of the Aram Khatcheturian pieces, but on the other hand they all in their own ways typify a sort of bracing view of the 20th century, a kind of rooted pre-technicolor period? Perhaps.

What counts is that the sequence of works fit together in their own way, that they make often enough considerable technical demands on the performer and Raffi Besalyan rises to the occasion wonderfully well.

All have a kind of specially buoyant Late Romantic-meets-Modern expressionist dash, with Khatchaturian having understadanbly his own rootedness in Armenian and Russian rhapsodic poignancy in contrast to Gershwin and Levant's pronounced American Jazzed Populism.

All have a pronounced melodic vibrancy, each in its own way, with the ghostly presence of Stravinsky lurking in the wings? In subtle ways perhaps, or perhaps as a kind of convergence going forward, a synchrony of performativity and bold pianism. And then too it all makes sense as Levant was a champion of Gershwin and Khachaturian as an acclaimed pianist of his day, and then too his own compositions fit in with and furthered that stylistic complex he appreciated.

The Khachaturian works connect together as busy and dynamic vehicles for a driving virtuosity that Besalyan seems born to. So we happily revel in the Waltz from the "Masquerade Suite,": the very Armenian sounding Adagio from the ballet "Spartacus," the excitement of his three movement "Sonatina," the tender Armenian oriented Lullaby from "Gayane" and the tempestuous "Sabre Dance" as arranged nicely by Levant for solo piano.

The Oscar Levant works are gems, not as often heard as they should be. The Sonatina is playful, firey and dynamic. Besalyan plays it with real sympathy, rhythmic drive and Modern snap. Equally exciting is the "Four Etudes on Gershwin Songs," reminding us that Gershwin in his most infectous songs was coming at Jazz in his own right and Levant puts that forward ever more pronouncedly in a Modern Classical zone here, though the superarpeggiated aspects point to a furtherence of piano Jazz tied to a Romantic origin yet bubbling over with heated energy.

Gershwin's plaintive and noir-ish "Three Preludes for Piano" fits perfelctly in the sequence and gets an excellent interpretation. 

The original piano only version of "Rhapsody in Blue" heard here seems all the more Modern and Jazz-laced in this performance, a marvel and in many ways less a period piece than the standard orchestrated version.

Repeated hearings confirms the importance of this albums. Besalyan is an ideal vehicle for this music, in many ways setting or furthering a benchmark for the various works. Bravo!

 

    



Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Samuel Barber, Medea, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, A Hand of Bridge, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

 

When you look back on how you discovered certain composers when younger, sometimes you find it was nearly a matter of chance. When I was young and first exploring the wide expanses of regions, composers, stylistic schools and periods,    , budget labels and cutouts most certainly allowed someone with limited resources like me to take a chance on something unknown and not empty my pockets at the same time. 

In this way I came to appreciate American composer Samuel Barber. One first exposure was Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing selected parts from his ballet Medea and another was a budget recording of his Knoxville Summer of 1915. Munch's "Medea" was a wonder"Knoxville" was a decent enough version to get the idea, though I've forgotten who did it. I had to sel;l it before heading off the graduate school in 1981.

By the time I had absorbed both these works/performances I was impressed with how Barber managed to create very memorable New Music while in his own way acting with originality and verve in a Modern-Romantic mode. That I heard but could not put a name to it until I read about him in a Contemporary music monograph. 

As time has passed these two works have lightened my days considerably the more I continued to listen. And as time went by I subsequently embraced his "Adagio," his Violin Concerto, etc. Happily in Barber for me was a very lyrical voice that did not sound retrograde or old fashioned. He was his own outstanding self and I was happy to find this out.

So I was glad when I heard that Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project had released a volume of Barber gems, namely the complete score of the ballet Medea, a new recorded version of Knoxville with soprano Kristen Watson, and then a ten minute mini-operatic work "A Hand of Bridge" from 1950.

The performance of "Knoxville" leaves nothing to be desired. It breathes in yearning memory of a time past, yet basks in the light of the timeless beauty of summer magic. It reaffirms the highly engaging, vivid enchantment I felt on first hearing the work. BMOP show us a present-day balance that only serves to increase our feeling of timelessness. Wonderful.

The complete "Medea" in nine movements brings to us a relevance I originally felt on the Munch excerpt, perhaps with a bit less fire that the old recording but then with a nicely Apollonian central balance that gathers the total together in all nine movements and gives us a full earful of the evolving totality, the wholeness of the complete version.

The bonus 1959 "A Hand of Cards" has a nice expressivity to it and makes us appreciate further Barber's natural affinity for vocal writing.

All told this gives us carefully involved, painstaking versions of the works. They bear up on repeated hearings, giving us a Barber that sounds as fresh today as the days when he first wrote these masterful works.

The Suite, Music by Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Jose Elizondo, Anthony R. Green, The Lowell Chamber Orchestra, Orlando Cela

 


Just what goes with what can be a central aspect of coming up with an illuminating program of music. That's so with The Lowell Chamber Orchestra under Orlando Cela and their recent album entitled The Suite (Navona NV 6324). The central idea is that a chamber orchestra and solo flute(s) can address the multi-movement suite form, that Baroque classics of the genre can compare and contrast with several contemporary Modern tonal analogs.

And the truth is that setting a kind of mutually reflecting historical mirror one against the other gives us some in-depth chances to contemplate being here in the present as well as embracing how humanity has been in a musically astute past--and how it still speaks to us, still matters. 

We get that with a happy and spirited performance of the Telemann "Overture Suite in E minor" which is new to me but a gem nonetheless, performed with a happy zeal. That is followed by Bach and his marvelous "Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor," an absolutely ravishing thing played in a gamy, rather Modern fashion, spawning past and preparing the listener for the two Modern-day suites that follow. Now I might have heard more Baroquely exacting performances of this suite, but this approach opens us up to a more comparative way to think about it all, so it fits the context well, and indeed is pure pleasure to hear in any event.

I can't say I know much about our present-day terpsichorians (the latter in the sense that the suites both have like the venerable works a connection with the dance one way or another). With the Jose Elizondo "Recuerdos Estivos (Summer Memories)" and the Anthony E. Green "The Green Double: A Historical Dance Suite," both have a great deal of charm and a very personal slant that is neither directly backward looking nor oblivious to the form and its ancient roots.

"Summer Memories" do seem to fill the air with a kind of halcyonic nostalgia that nonetheless avoid a haze of sentimentality. Nonetheless there is a kind of rhapsodic Romanticism joined to a kind of post-Baroque view that sets it apart nicely.

Anthony R. Green's "Green Double" has an effusive quality as well, but then a bit more delicate a bouquet of sonic sonance. It lingers in the mind as an atmospheric--yet all of it does in its own way. The eleven minute final movement gives us a playful contemporaneity that satisfies and sends us on our way with a smile.

It is a program to take you into the present by way of a retrospected past. Cela and the Lowell Chamber Orchestra bring us a fresh view of where the Suite has been and something of where it seems to be going. Bravo!


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Clifford Crawley, Moods and Miniatures, Maureen Volk

 

There are some composers out there right now, as pretty much at any time, that can make their importance known to you with just a few notes, for they have a unique character that comes through in a rapid way. That is true for me of the English-Canadian musical stalwart Clifford Crawley (1929-2016). I am listening happily to an anthology of his work that came in the mail recently. It is aptly titled Moods and Miniatures (Centrediscs  CMCCD 28621). 

He was born in England and taught and composed there from 1952 through to 1973, when he came to Canada and taught Composition and Music Education at Queen's University for the remainder of his working life. He came to know pianist Maureen Volk on moving to St. John's in 2002. 

Maureen heads up the ensemble on piano for this lovely collection of compositions. The solo piano works are the bedrock showcases in many ways for his very characteristic, tonal, post-Impressionistic, post-Satie-n playful and whimsical expressions. Ms. Volk handles them all with a beautiful sympathy that makes them all shine--"iPieces for Piano," "Toccatas for Piano," "Twelve Preludes" and then along with Beverley Diamond the "Kalamaika: Suite for Piano Duet." It is a furtherance of Satie, Ravel-Debussy brilliance taken in a personal direction that has a real charm, that is a true pleasure to hear.

This one should appeal to a wide swatch of music lovers. It makes me want to hear more! Do not miss this!

But for that matter the chamber pieces included here for clarinet and piano ("Ten A Penny Pieces"), and for flute, clarinet and piano ("pieces-of-eight") are equally original, personal and filled with whimsy and humor.

No matter how you want to slice the order of the music, this is a fine album, showing us a musical sould fully oroginal and filled with brilliance, I would love to hear more of Crawley after so happily digesting this one! Highly recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Martin Scherzinger, Scherzinger Etudes, (For Piano), Bobby Mitchell

 

What New Music can be has become extended, become more opened up over the past 50 years so that one can never quite know what to expect next. That is not a bad thing. In the case of the music up today it is a very good thing. Scherzinger Etudes (New Focus Recordings FCR295) reads the type at the bottom of the cover. Look further inside at the liners and you verify that the composer is Martin Scherzinger (to spell out first and last names) and the pianist performing the Etudes is Bobby Mitchell. All that may mean something to you or possibly not--it depends of course on your. personal circle of compositions and artists. 

What matters here of course is the specific composition and performance, both of which are outstanding. The music is not what you might expect in that it is unmistakably of our time, yet not "Modern" in the genre specific capital /M/ sense. In the most obvious sense this is not "bleep bloop" rangy Serialism, which is what one expected to hear nearly universally years back. It is tonal and it often has the full-expression keyful of music that Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninov made their own. Yet the melodic-harmonic unfolding is more primal and post-Romantic, almost Folksy, Lisztian.

And most importantly the music sounds very comfortable being what it is, which is original and lyrically effusive while also being virtuoso oriented in the best pianistic sense. It is hard to play! And Bobby Mitchell sounds great in how he performs it with elan, with excitement.

The composer tells us in the liners that the music could be seen as a kind of "musique concrete topologique of found musical sound." By that he means that "These etudes are rewritings of the music of Schumann, Couperin, Paganini, Sgambati, Brahms and others." The music is subject to transformation as in a kind of musical "hall of mirrors" to give them a newness, a hearing "as it for the first time." Those insightful words help us undestand what the composer was after, and at the same time it does not at all take away from the originality of the music as we hear it. Not at all. And indeed the key is "as if for the first time," for that is absolutely the case.

It is an excellent example of how endless music can be. There is nothing new under the sun? No, we can never run out of possibilities and here is an unexpected one, a classic-in-the-making, an important work of interest to anyone who loves the piano, who loves the new, or for that matter, perhaps to anyone musical! Strongly recommended. Molto bravo!

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Daniel Lippel, Johann Sebastian Bach, aufs Lautenwerk, The Well-Tempered Guitar

 

As one grows older, if one has taken advantage of the availability of the music of Bach over the years, Bach speaks to the listening self with ever more clarity and movement, so that at least for me Bach takes a central place often enough among various musical  things and so I gain ever more from the hearing.

So today there is a recent volume of Bach that speaks volumes to me--namely Daniel Lippel's The Well Tempered Guitar, aufs Lautenwerk (New Focus Recordings FCR 920 MF18). It is, as the subtitle suggests, music Bach intended for the lute. Adapting it to the guitar involves foremost a guitar-centered aural sense, a sensitivity to making the glorious music sound anew. Daniel does just that.

If you are like me some of this music will be very familiar--through hearing guitar or lute versions or even arrangements for other instruments. Others might seem somewhat less familiar, to me anyway. All is welcome, deeply satisfying on multiple listens. So we get the five movement Suite in Em BWV 996, the four movement Sonata in Cm BWV 997 and the three movement Prelude, Fuga & Allegro in Eb BWV 998.

Daniel Lippel gives us a kind of whole cloth reading of the music, with equal weight given to each part in counterpoint and/or stretching into aural space. The line weaving is smoothly phrased so we can take it all in as the unity it was intended to be. There's not a lot of rubato and as you listen it seems quite right, quite as it no doubt sounded to Bach as he conceived it.

This is extraordinarily deep music in the end, extraordinarily phased and sounded by Maestro Lippel. Very recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2021

John-Henry Crawford, Dialogo, with Victor Santiago Asuncion, Brahms, Ligeti, Shostakovich

 

Young cellist John-Henry Crawford has a phenomenal way about him. There comes an album by him that gives us a bird's eye view of his brilliance. It is dubbed Dialogo (Orchid Classics ORC 100166). The title makes sense because it is a matter of John-Henry engaging in a vivid dialog with three compositions, and for two out of the three, with the pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion.

It turns out that the works chosen for the program seem pretty ideal in terms of giving us various sides and moods for the cellist to dwell within. And the music happens to be exceedingly beautiful anyway.

The Op. 99 Brahms Sonata for Piano and Cello has so much wonderful about it at base. Crawford attacks the cello part with a beautifully singing tone, a variable vibrato that brings the sound into various poetically aural places, and an intonation perfection that anybody with good ears will hearken to and appreciate. Asuncion returns the aural volleys with a widely subtle variability and a superb sense of touch and articulation that set us into a happy place from first to last. Anyone who knows and loves this sonata will recognize what a marvelous reading this is, surely one of the very best I have heard and I have heard more than a few.

Gyorgy Ligeti's Sonata for Solo Cello gets exceptional treatment by Crawford. The very sophisticated bowing demands and melodic complexities are taken in stride by the cellist. And remarkably he manages to retain his signature singing vibrancy throughout, so that it is both very Modern but also very lyrical.

Lastly the Shostakovich Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor brings to us a very strongly tempered, boldly outlined unravelling of the many brilliant twists and turns of the four movement work. There is more strength than delicacy perhaps but that is no doubt a good thing for the insights one can gain by hearing it all in this way, full strength as it were. The robust reading seems right, but then too it is not at a maximum assertive level either, so it all makes sense.

Get this one and hear a wonderful young cellist open up new avenues to classic works. Do not miss it.

Kareem Roustom, Kinan Abou-Afach, Words Adorned, The Crossing, Donald Nally

 



The combination of Classical elements and local musical traditions is nothing new. Of course you can go back to the earliest church music and sometimes find local song woven into chant form, or Papa Haydn taking on regional folk forms to suit his ends, not to mention musical Nationalism as it came into vogue in the later 19th Century through to the Modern era.

For all that the possibilities remain as open-ended as ever. As if to remind us of such things, there is a recent release of Andalusian-poetry-based music meeting New Music called Words Adorned (Navona NV6356).

Andalusia is the Southernmost community in peninsular Spain, which historically was where Moors once prevailed, ruling the region from the 8th to the 15th centuries. With them came a vibrant Arabic literature and music. 

From that comes a forward looking musical program featuring the renowned choral group The Crossing under the direction of Donald Nally. Add to that the very capable instrumental ensemble Al-Bustan Takht consisting of oud, violin, drums, etc., and the very beautiful lead vocals of Dalal Abu-Amneh. All this is under the astute general musical direction of Hanna Khoury.

The music center around two song settings with composition-arrangements of Andalusian poetry. Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach each give us a compelling suite of songs that both takes inspiration from large group Andalusian music (at least as I have heard it) but also then interject elements of Classical Modernity. I have never heard a more interesting combination of old and new, classical and contemporary when it comes to the Arabic diaspora. The music is superbly written and excellently performed.

The program ends with "When He Appeared," a traditional Muwashshah very nicely played and sung. I believe I still have a recording of Oum Kalthoum doing this. The version here rivals that, which is saying something.

All goes wonderfully well in this program. I do not hesitate to recommend it to you highly. It will give you a musically astute extension of traditional Andalusian song into the present and future of Modern Classical.


Monday, July 5, 2021

Ofer Pelz, Trinite, Meitar Ensemble

 

No doubt it is time for something different, something notable in the latest High Modern realms. I have just the thing. Ofer Pelz, an imaginative sound color composer, steps forth with a series of prepared piano-centered chamber works that celebrates an eight year collaboration with the Israel-based ensemble Meitar Ensemble. The album is entitled Trinite (New Focus Recordings FCR 303).

The opening salvo rivets the listening self in a dynamic, rhythmically complex dynamo of prepared piano amplified with contact mikes that also trigger percussion instruments. All is nicely performed by Amit Dolberg, who deftly handles the complex multiple layers of gestural expressions.

From there we go on to four more chamber works, each a special sound world unto itself.

So we experience the expressively hushed "Chinese Whispers" for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, prepared piano and amplification. It plays further upon the sorts of atmospherics Feldman and Crumb did so well. Pelz finds his own way into the sound labyrinth possibilities. The remaining four works continue in the color-atmospheric zone each in their own way, with impressive eloquence, with convincing sound personality and sensitive performances that do the music full justice.

So we come to appreciate "Convergence" for alto flute and electronics, "marchons, marchons" for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and prepared piano, and finally the two movements of "Blanc sur Blanc" for flute, clarinet, prepared piano and amplified string quartet.

It is just what you need for some refreshing poetic forays into timbral brilliance. Bravo.

Sparks, Vol II, Works for Orchestra, New Music, Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Stanislav Vavrinek, Jiri Petrolik

 

Sometimes an anthology in the New Music realm can let you explore a lot of New Music that you might not otherwise get a chance to hear. That is certainly true of a collection of works for orchestra entitled Sparks Vol II (Navona NV6337). On it we have eight relatively brief works by as many composers, all Contemporary, some covered previously on these pages, others not. The Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavrinek or Jiri Petrolik do each of the works justice with earnest and lively readings.

Some of the works sound more relatively High Modern than others, though in common is a kind of orchestral Expressionism that is tonal with varying degrees of dissonance and melodic centralism. I found the best way to listen to this one was to relax all preconceived expectations as to what this sort of grouping might sound like. And then you get eight composers following their own muse. John Franek sounds the most Modern, and I have much appreciated Rain Worthington and John A. Carollo on these pages more than once--the new works by them here continue to intrigue my ears and form high points in the program.

On the other hand there are no "dogs" in the collection. Each composer has something substantial to say. And in the process you get to know something of the orchestral music of Dave Dexter,  William C. White, Simon Andrews, Allen Brings, and Jeff Mangels.

As the liners tell us, everything is of the 21st Century, all make up possibilities in Post-Modern music. The format of the miniature avoids typical concerns with long0form symphonic structure. And that is very refreshing in itself. Each composer puts him or herself into it and the program never flags, thankfully.

This sort of totality is what we come to expect from the Navona label (and Parma recordings in general). There is no nonsense, no compromise and an insistence on avoiding some kind of contemporary conformity. If you want to take a pretty deep dive into our current century, you cannot go wrong with this anthology. I am enjoying it myself. Very recommended.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Verona Quartet, Diffusion, Janacek, Szymanowski, Ravel Quartets

 

So much music keeps coming to us, the listeners. Yet dig we must for the buried treasures? Today like most days I have one that has gotten through to my ears and deserves attention. It is the recorded debut of the Verona Quartet in a program entitled Diffusion (Azica ACD-71339).

It is perhaps a truism that some works gain in comprehensibility after a certain amount of time, so that for example Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" after a certain point became more comprehensible to great conductors and great orchestras, and so too to audiences, so that at least some performances in time made greater sense, had mastered the musical language of the work and thereby played out the whole with a fluid lucidity not previously heard.

Hold that thought for a minute while we cover the preliminaries of today's album. The Verona Quartet steps forth in a thematic way here. Diffusion plays upon the quartet's diverse cultural origins--Singapore, Canada, US, UK--and presents a program that in essence assumes, benefits from and encompasses the foursome's local folk roots and gives us a kind of cohesive picture of how they diffuse their own backgrounds and come to understand the corresponding elements in each of the three quartets featured in the program, namely Leos Janacek's String Quartet No. 2 "Intimate Letters," Karol Szymanowski's String Quartet No. 2 and Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F Major.

I am not so familiar with the Szymanowski but it is a nice version and good to hear, very worthwhile in itself. The Janacek and the Ravel are both favorites of mine, melodic harmonic wholes made up of disparate parts, striking motifs that gather together in brilliant juxtapositions. 

What seems remarkable to me on these performances is the detailed finessing of all the motifs and their seamless juxtaposition of all with all perhaps like never quite heard in this way. Hence my thought at the beginning of this article about how as time passes artists who are further on in the evolution of the modern classical world can express a whole with increasing sympathy and understanding. 

In short the Verona Quartet's personal diffusion has made it possible for rather ideally ravishing readings of these most inventive Modern-vernacular exceptionalities. The time has come for the Verona Quartet and with their superb musicianship and interpretive brilliance I hope we can look forward to many years of greatness from them. Kudos and congratulations on such a fine debut! Listen to this one without fail if you can. Do not miss it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Haskell Small, Johann Sebastian Bach, Keyboard Partitas 1, 4 & 5, Bach and the Piano

 

Live a virtual lifetime of music appreciation and one can look back and trace a progression of gradual coming-to-know enlightenment. So for example when I moved to Hyde Park in Chicago in 1981 I knew the Bach Partitas as part of an old Vox Box, performed on harpsichord with period faithfulness, not spectacular but lovely for the music of course.

My neighborhood in Chi-town had a great used record store and one day I found there a very old Remington LP of Jorge Demus doing several of the Partitas on piano. The darned record skipped but it was a revelation. Demus really convinced in his ultra-pianistic reading. Here was a music that translated especially well to a creative piano outlook. But that became clear to me only when I heard a real world-class pianist interpret it.

A bit later and I in time came to appreciate Glenn Gould's readings of the Partitas, but the Demus dynamic and slight rubato, the variations in touch and expression lived on as a model I found quite compelling, as much as the Gould had its very own sublimities. Both are good to know.

Years have gone by, I eventually found a skip-free copy of the Demus, but then just now I received a new CD in the mail of one Haskell Small playing on piano the Keyboard Partitas 1, 4 & 5 (MSR Classics MS 1717(). The name vaguely rang a bell. In fact I checked and realized that I had covered him playing nicely a modern set of piano compositions--in a review posting of. October 24, 2016. That is I posted happily on his Book of Hours album then.

Of course one can handle adroitly and thrive at performing Contemporary Modern piano music and it does not mean one could do quite the same with Bach. But Haskell Small's new CD shows us he has a wonderful feel for the Partitas, a sure pianistic sense of the ways to translate Bach's brilliance to piano performance practice. So he can take a long contrapuntal passage and vary the articulation of each note in sequence, vary the tempo just enough that it does not sound robotic but not so much that he sounds "clever." He trills just enough to remind us of the lineage. He expresses the tenderness of the music when called for, not so much sounding Romantic as letting show a somewhat tempered feelingfulness, just right, not to interrupt the flow so much as to add to it another dimension that of course the piano in the right hands does so well.

As much as I love the Partitas I must say Small's readings of 1, 4 & 5 give me the more to love by a real pianistic sympathy born not out of a spectacular approach, rather a subtle one You do not come away from the recording being impressed in the obvious sense with astonishment, with the velocity or other showmanship one might come to expect after Gould's readings. Instead there is a total musicality about it all, a deep dedication to making this wonderful music sound. And sure, there is nevertheless no lack of technique, velocity, melodic contour, etc., all in service to Small's vision of each movement, which is foremost. In the process Small gives us a kind of lyricization of the music, a making poignant, which the piano of course can do and Small knows how to realize it.

In the end Maestro Small adds to our appreciation with a command performance. If you have a little Demus, a little Gould, fine. But even if you do not this is a wonderful version that you should seriously consider if you love Bach and love too the piano! Hoorah! The is another volume out that I suspect deserves our attention as well.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Sonidos Cubanos 2, New Music from the Cuban Diaspora

 

When I think of Cuba I think of great music and some great baseball players among other things. Oh, yes and great food! One of those three things came in the mail to me recently and I am very happy for it. It is an anthology of New Music by Cuban composers, entitled Sonidos Cubanos 2 (Neuma 133), Each of the composers featured in this second volume is a recipient of the Cintas Foundation Fellowship for composers of Cuban descent. Each currently holds sway somewhere in the Cuban Diaspora.

What is remarkable, one of the things that is remarkable about this anthology is not so much the Modern conceptual rigor of it all so much as that the music all sounds wonderfully well. Each work excels in its own melodic-harmonic-timbral ingeniousness. It is something one of course generally hopes for in New Music but cannot of course always get.

There is a wide variety of expressive possibilities and musical grouping in this five work set.

Flores Chaviano opens the program with an orchestra work that pays homage to the victims of a 1995 mining disaster in Spain. The music has a gradual build up to searing sadness in a tone poem that rings out with clangorous impact and brilliance.

From there we go to heartbreak and a sad beauty in Ivette Herryman Rodriguez's setting of Christina Rossetti's "When I am Dead, My Dearest." Soprano, cello and piano express a tender despair. Kudus especially to Lindsay Kesselman and her wondrous soprano reading.

Odeline de la Martinez extends the mood with a deeply reflective chamber work about the composer's Cuban childhood in "Litanies." It is haunting and just plain beautiful. If there was nothing else but this work it would be enough, at least as far as inspired fare goes. Happily all of these works are worthy and as a whole make for an experience that will ring in your head for a very long time once you get situated to the sequence.

Sabrina Pena Young follows with the five song except from the "Libertorio Song Cycle." It too calls out to us musically in special ways. The final movement-song features some impressive additions of metal guitar and bass. It works wonderfully well!

Finally there is Eduardo Morales-Caso's "Evolving Spheres" for bass clarinet and piano. It is called a "fantasy" and indeed it does have a open kind of narrative impact musically.

Taken altogether this is a program of valuable, memorable music. It does not attempt to knock over the boundaries of the Modern but instead follows the personal muse of each composer for an awesome sonic sensibility and brilliance. High recommended for all who seek something new and of course something good. It is all that, very much so.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Matt Haimovitz, Mari Kodama, MON AMI, Mon amour, Early Modern French Music for Cello and Piano

 

I have been playing catch up a little lately with releases that are worthwhile that I have meant to cover. So today there is an effervescent program of French Early Modern-Post-Romantic music for cello and piano. It features the magnificent cello of Matt Haimovitz and the compellingly complementary piano of Mari Kodama. It is fittingly titled MON AMI, Mon amour (Pentatone PTC 5186 816).

One thing this music reminds us of happily and memorably is that the early Modern French chamber style so nicely represented here was Post-Romantic in its general Impressionism, Romantically expressive in a different way than 19th century styles--in other words rather more luminescent, harmonically sophisticated and decidedly atmospheric.

What especially attracts me to this program is the wide swatch of composers covered, just about a definitive sample of the leading lights for expressive inventiveness back then. So we have two pieces by Gabriel Faure, and one apiece by the likes of Francois Poulenc, Darius Milhaud,  Lili Boulanger, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy.

The music has real substance. Matt and Mari take pains to give each a detailed regardful mood and a dynamic reading, nothing less than what one might come to expect from such a talented pairing. The result is an album all Francophiles should revel in and listen to repeatedly with increasing pleasure. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Inna Faliks, Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel, Nine World Premieres

 

One of the ways the legacy of Classical composer titans lives on is through works written later as a homage to the master, so to speak, either in a general sense, or less often as deliberately modelling and extending a specific work. Pianist Inna Faliks gives us a volume of piano music devoted to later day Modern compositions each responding to an earlier piano work. The title gives us the plan--Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel (Navona NV6352).

On this absorbing and deeply pianoforte-centered program we have some nine world premiere compositions specifically written for Ms. Faliks. 

For the Beethoven segment there are some six original works, each modelled after one of Beethoven's six Bagatelles, opus 126. Quite sensibly and fascinatingly, each new work is presented followed by the Beethoven Bagatelle in question. So we hear in this way pieces expressly responding to a Bagatelle, one apiece by Richard Danielpour,  Peter Golub, Tamir Hendelman, David Lefkowitz, Mark Carlson, and Ian Krause.

Following on the heels of this lovely coupling are three works responding to a separate movement each from Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit"--by Paola Prestini, Timo Andres and Billy Childs.

All the homages extend the legacy, bring it into a piano-centered present day and thereby give pianist Faliks a lengthy set of tone poems and active excitement that shows off her beautiful interpretive skills and brings us to the edge of our seats--or perhaps rather our piano benches! Inna Faliks gives us a substantial program that shows her spectacular touch and immaculate phrasing. The music remains in the mind even after just a few listens for its haunting luminescence.

This album should please a wide range of listeners, including of course those New Music enthusiasts who are up for a Modernity that responds to the Classical legacy as it steps forward into the future. Molto bravo!

Monday, June 21, 2021

Philip Blackburn, Justinian Intonations, Electroacoustic Music with Ryland Angel, Vocals

 

Since I began writing these reviews years ago I have come to know Philip Blackburn as an articulate, erudite and very capable head of the Innova New Music label and now in the same capacity for Neuma Records. He is a fine fellow and knows his stuff. I've also come to appreciate him as a composer of sonically and inventively innovative New Music. If you type his name in the search box above you will see a number of very positive review articles I've penned on his music.

And now there is a new one, a very worthy one entitled Justinian Intonations (Neuma 127). This one is an hour of sonically fascinating drone-sustain.

Now as I have been exposed to such things, there are a number of ways to go with a drone-sustain mode of composition. One is a glitchy, almost art brut primal quality. Neither the drone nor what goes with it is in this scenario deliberately sonically well-painted so much as it is elemental--not necessarily precisely so but vaguely like the old US land line telephone dial tone. My childhood growing up with that was my first and main exposure to everyday life drone sustain experience, though there were similar aural equivalents with electric fans and tv off-the-air test patterns. The same might be said of the old nuclear attack Emergency Alert civil defense multitone signal on TV and radio in the old days, sometimes even now. So in some ways hearing a piece in that glitchy primal mode may resonate for people of a certain age with the feeling on hearing those elemental signals growing up. Similarly Varese's "revolutionary" use of sirens in his percussion classic  "Ionization" sounded potentially a similar ominous feeling in the contemporary listener.

Another important sort of drone sustain zone can be first heard in the Fripp and Eno (and then later  just Fripp) works utilizing sustain psychedelic guitar long tones with or without additional electronics and featuring sophisticated employment of digital delay.

Philip Blackburn's Justinian Intonations occupies a somewhat different realm and does so beautifully well.  A hint of what that is about can be gathered from the cover image, a stylized abstraction assembled around a visual image of an old, vastly cavernous cathedral. Those who know the wonderful sustained echo of such places will recognize a hinting at a kind of aesthetic, Early Music element of what sustain-drone music can be today--paralleled with the direct drone-longtone ways of Medieval Organum and Eastern Orthodox chant, both of which of course are built upon a drone foundation.

The beautifully complex color timbral sound of Blackburn's music resonates with those foundations without directly calling them up. Ryland Angel's vocal part, as an added meaning-color has definite chant and Early Music recollections. The wide spectrum of the total sound of the electronic-acoustic-electric totality gives us a kind of New Music analog of those earlier sound modes. There is pronounced timbral coverage and a complexity of tone soundings that rivals the orchestral modes we of course are so familiar with as Classical listeners. It does not in the last instance try to simulate directly  the orchestral possibility though. It remains firmly and "exotically" electroacoustic-electronic.

Time passes in this music like any other, but it is not at all a tedious time. Things change, they are often enough linear and sometimes quite gradual but never does it feel like a loop-de-loop as much as a kind of sacral time, the entire sequence feeling ultimately like a magical ritual, a rite of sound so to speak.

It is a contemporary New Music that unfolds naturally, organically, without some marked self-conscious newness. I've now listened to this program many times and it still seems fresh and naturally, emphatically ethereal, supportive and eventful in a gradualist way.

Bravo! Listen to this one without fail if you like a bit of the Universe in your musical kingdoms! Strongly recommended. Blackburn is a vital force in the music today.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Dave Dunn, Verdant, Long-Form Electronic Music Today

 

In New Music there are times when a good conceptual idea and a careful working out of it are exactly what's needed to carry the day. Such is the experience of listening to the nearly 80 minute Verdant (Neuma 129) a singular Electronic Music work by David Dunn.

The remarable thing about this work first off is that it fills an entire CD with the one continuous work, yet it manages to create a musical landscape one does not tire of. That is at least in part because Dunn deliberately stays in a place that endlessly unfolds without in any way demanding by its musical implications to move on to a part B, a part C, etc.

The central fulcrum point of the work is a contrapuntal. slowly unwinding, mostly diatonic melodic endlessness for multipart electronic tones  that are just random enough never to repeat exactly yet for all that seem vitally, musically authentic. There are also enough non-diatonic, non-stepwise tones in the mix that it expands the possibilities considerably. This central part of the music sounds quite beautiful as you contemplate it.

It is added to by  some ambient natural sounds, little bells, tinkling chimes, bird calls, a kind of feeling of musical daylight. Those sounds are continually, gradually changing, evolving against the continual contrapuntal and harmonic movement-in-stasis.

The composer in the accompanying liner notes helps us further situate the music. He interestingly notes the affinity of the music with "the idyllic and elegaic affect sought by the English Pastoral composers after the violence of World War I." He ties the idea into a "self-therapeutic" intent in response to the dark days of 2020, to create the musical equivalent to a striving after a more hopeful future. Well I concur that the music does indeed come across in such a way.

The composer gives us a detailed view of the overall musical structure of the work by dividing it into four categories. The first three center around the tonal totality. So there are "very slowly changing" sinewave drones, middle duration pitches played by two electric violins, and then arpeggiated sine tone melodies.

The accompanying ambiant backdrop I note above is actually high resolution field recordings of the composer's backyard in Santa Fe on Easter Sunday 2020.

All that makes sense mainly because of course the whole thing sounds very pastoral-positive. It is a joy to hear if you give it time to unfold.

This is perhaps not for somebody who wants continual change in their music. On the other hand it is not Minimalist per se as the composer notes. I do recommend this one strongly if it sounds like something you'll like. It is a healthy kind of music, something to bounce back from things, with things. Listen!

Thursday, June 17, 2021

American Discoveries, Orchestral Music by Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, Alexandra Pierce, Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, Reuben Blundell

 

As time keeps moving forward we continue to be surprised by music we previously knew nothing about. Just lately I've been lucky enough to be sent a volume of such things, orchestral music from the last century by US women composers that turn out to be  worthy of our consideration. American Discoveries (New Focus Recordings FCR 286) is the matter-of-fact title of the album.

The music is quite nicely and respectably performed by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra under conductor Reuben Blundell. Each of the three works presented here have something distinctive about them, something individual and memorable. 

There is an evocative miniature that has a feeling of pastoral Americana without being obvious about it--Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) and her "City Trees" (1928). It is rhapsodic without being especially Romantic, descriptively noble, lyrical and rugged like trees, perhaps. It was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic under Howard Hansen in 1928 while Ms. Beach was getting her MA from Eastman. Tragically most of her compositions have been lost.

That opener is followed by Linda Robbins Coleman's "For A Beautiful Land" (1996), which has a kind of pastoral Impressionistic Americana that goes quite well with the opener and refreshes with an inventive lyrical melodic sense like a sunny day in late spring.

The final work is longer, more modern in harmonic expansiveness--the 1976, five movement "Behemoth" by Alexandra Pierce. There is a kind of crisp post-Varesian logical inevitability to the music, and happily so. But it does not really sound like Varese so much as it partakes of sometimes similar spatio-temporal ideas of sound and silence.

I was not sure what to expect when I first put this one on. After a bunch of listens it feels like music well considered, maybe not always at the edge of Modernity but not looking backwards either. And all told the three works are a worthy addition to our ear-time activities. Nice! Thank you Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and Reuben Blundell for taking care that we hear these works done properly. Happily recommended.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Antonin Dvorak, The Late Symphonies, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, David Bernard

 

Sometimes for well-loved classics there are performance possibilities you may not have considered but once you do, it may seem very much a good idea. I've long lived happily with a multi-LP set of the Dvorak symphonies by Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic. It has all nine symphonies, played heroically with a full-sized orchestra, perhaps, as I think about it, firmly in a Beethovenian manner, in the tradition of great and grand performances of Beethoven's 3rd, 5th, 9th.

A few days ago a parcel arrived containing a two-CD set of David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony doing The Late Symphonies (Recursive Classics RC3137552) of Dvorak. That is a comfortable fit on the two CDs of Symphonies 6, 7, 8 and the Symphony No. 9--The "Symphony from the New World". Like most listeners I came to the 9th first, at a pretty young age (13) and have sampled a fair number of readings of the work ever since. A kind of Beethovenesque, full-out version suits the work very well of course, and as it happens I never contemplated some other take on it.

So the set arrived. I know the New York based Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under David Bernard through several releases. Some I appreciate a good deal (see index box for those reviews). This Dvorak set seems especially attractive for the way Bernhard and the orchestra handle it all. It sounds much less Beethovenian, even a bit less Romantic per se but more in its own right, with Bohemian, Eastern European vernacular elements coming across with a kind of faithfulness to the overall infectious local elements as Dvorak conceived and transformed them, especially in Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7, but generally speaking throughout, even parts of the "New World" 9th.

The set is available for download in the usual places. If you are reading this early the CDs are not out until July 9, 2021.

I am happy to recommend this set to anyone who is not familiar with the later symphonies as a whole, and for any Dvorak enthusiast who wants a refreshing reading of these works. The orchestra and Bernard are locked in, inspired, filled with a different vision than is the norm. I love it all myself. Give these readings a chance and I suspect you too will find them as a breath of fresh air. Bravo.

I wonder if they are considered subsequent volumes--of the Symphonies Nos. 1 through 5? I would love to hear that.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Richard Danielpour, An American Mosaic, Simone Dinnerstein

 

Composer Richard Danielpour shines brightly as one of the most illustrious and talented of living US composers. There is a wondrous new recording of a substantial suite for solo piano, An American Mosaic (Supertrain Records 025), as played with great sensitivity and verve by Simone Dinnerstein.

All of this music was born out of Richard's anxiety and insomnia last year in the first stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The only thing that relaxed him and allowed him to sleep was listening to Simone Dinnerstein's Bach recordings.

A plan took shape to compose a suite that would provide true solace to those like him that did their best in unprecidented, trying circumstances, "whether they [were] caretakers and research physicians, parents and children, rabbis and ministers, doctors and interns, or teachers and students, these individuals [were] the face of America" in the composer's own words.

He got in contact with Simone Dinnerstein and during the summer and fall of last year, Simone entirely remotely on the other coast of the USA collaborated with Danielpour, learning each of the 15 movements and giving valuable feedback on performance elements.

The results are here, all of the "Mosaic" plus three Bach Transcriptions Danielpour arranged for Dinnerstein--from the Mass and the St. Matthew Passion. The entire program the composer and the pianist hope will give solace to all those caught within the emotional roller coaster of various developments in the last year or so.

The music is deeply poetic, wonderfully pianistic, touching on musical equivalents to the movements titles: "The Invisible Enemy" and the "The Visible Enemy," for examples, i.e., the COVID-19 itself and what one might dub the "bleach drinking" imbalanced personalities we all experienced. Nobody important is left out--each has a movement, so "Caretakers and Research Physicians" and "Journalists, Poets & Writers." There are four "Consolations" movements. The music has depth and singing significances that are tonal and dramatically Post-Impressionist.

It is a perfect marriage of historical unfolding, musical inspiration and performative excellence. Surely it is the first Pandemic masterwork. I have listened lots of times and I must say I do feel the solace and revel in it. Danielpour and Dinnerstein are godsends, coming through with the sympathetic enjoinment we so sorely need in these difficult times! I recommend this one very highly.  

Thursday, June 10, 2021

John Adams, Chamber Symphony, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

 

Some albums become especially essential for the quality of the compositions, the performances and the wisdom of the repertoire choices. That is very true of a recent release by the Boston Modern Music Project under Gil Rose, John Adams' Chamber Symphony (BMOP 1078).

It includes for us the title work, the "Son of Chamber Symphony" (2007), and the earlier "Common Tones in Simple Time" (1979). In so doing it places the Chamber Symphony (1992) in a instructively relevant context, as part of the three drop-dead gorgeous, interrelated offerings that together provide a succinctly complete view of a multi-fold gesture and a wonderful listen.

It gets you from A to B very nicely. It covers Adam's very first orchestral work ("Common Tones") which sets out a processes based mesmeric field of Minimalist expression, conjuring a kind of dream of lived space. Adams then gives us via the Chamber Symphony a shift to rhythmic interplays of complexities and a kind of endless invention that goes beyond and brings up to date the sort of Neo-Classical realm sometimes occupied by Stravinsky. In the composer's words, "The weight and mass of a symphonic work [is] married to the transparency and mobility of the chamber work." In this way the music is irresistible and no doubt fiendishly challenging to the players at times.

The "Son of" follow-up clearly and most emphatically affirms the family ties implied in the title. The liners rightfully speak of a gradual movement away from Minimalism proper to a kind of Maximalist stance. "Son of" retains the rhythmic vitality of the first work, moving as the liners discuss away from chromatic tonal ambiguity to something more vernacular without committing per se to a locality of expression. It is the chamber orchestra equivalent of an interrelated set of tongue twisters, complexity that overlaps and doubles over upon itself continually. With the fast-slow-fast movement structure that in fact can vary in intensity and effectively so. It is a rather spectacular interplay of orchestral voices contrasting and affirming alternately for a remarkable experience.

The effective and intensively focused reading of these scores serves to present us with an ideal thumbnail portrait of orchestral Adams. 

Molto bravo!




Wednesday, June 9, 2021

George Palmer, Breaking the Silence, Chamber Music


 Judging by the recent chamber music release Breaking the Silence (Navona NV 6326), Australian composer George Palmer writes with a well developed lyric tonal sensibility, music of character and vivid color.

The liners tell us he has composed since his teenage days, studying it avidly and finding his voice at the same time as he studied and practiced law, gaining prominence as a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales 2001-2011. Since then he has retired and now devotes himself to composition full-time.

Listening to the four works on this program one feels his Modernity as well as the pull of lyrical tonality. The music drives out of Romanticism to a fluid place where long melodic arcs and vivid passagework combine for a music less derivative and more personal than one might come to expect these days. It is all more Neo-Classical and Post-Post-Modern than not, with a naturally direct way about it that is refreshing and quite enjoyable once one sweeps aside any pre-conceptual expectations. There is a hint of Impressionism too now and again, originally so.

The program sequencing divides more or less in two, the first two works being concerted or semi-concerted with a string or chamber orchestra backdrop. The second two works have chamber group typicality with the string quartet "Not Going Quietly" and the oboe-piano "Time Out."

The performances are first-rate while each work has its own special quality.

"Breaking the Silence," his Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, and its three movement episodic layout has some gorgeous and very effective interplay between soloist and orchestra. It is jaunty at times, then plaintive, then soaringely outgoing in ways that twist and turn unexpectedly.  It is an auspicious opening, fully worthy of your effort to get to know it all

"Ithaca" for clarinet and string trio is haunting in its three movement incisiveness.

"Time Out" for oboe and piano has a placid lyricism and a bit of a Jazz inflection at times. There is something vaguely Satie-an in its pellucid charm. It gives off a natural vibe as evidenced by its movement headings: "Sunset," "First Light, Briefly" and "2AM". It is a fittingly beautiful end to a beautiful program. 

Palmer's alternate career in law has perhaps allowed him to compose as he pleases, beyond the schools of Modernism out there since early last century. This is not Avant Garde but then it is not as Neo-whatever as one might expect to encounter either,  given the parameters.

I am glad this volume is out and that I have it. If you do not know what to expect next this is part of that unexpected element. It is very musical. That is what natters. Give a serious listen!

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Olivier Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time, Kurt Rohde, One Wing, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

 

The first recording I encountered of Olivier Messiaen's beautiful "Quartet for the End of Time" was a late '60s Angel LP as played movingly by Michel Beroff, Gervase de Peyer, Erich Gruenberg and William Pleeth. It became the benchmark by which I compared subsequent recordings. It remains so. Just now we have a new recording by the San Francisco based Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (Avie AV2452) along with a short but perfect compliment to the work, "one wing" by Kurt Rohde.

The Left Coast Ensemble as featured in this new release consists of  Jerome Simas, clarinet, Anna Presler on violin, Tanya Tomkins, cello, and Eric Zivian, piano. This surely is a quartet especially well suited to the work. More on that in a minute.

The circumstances of the coming into being, the genesis of the work is key to apprehending its content. Messiaen was confined in a Nazi Concentration Camp. Remarkably Messiaen rose up out of the horror of his circumstance to write and first perform the work while a prisoner.

The apocalyptic theme of course resonated with to horror of Nazi ascendance. We live in very different times of course now, yet with the pandemic and other upheavals it may occur to some that another apocalyptic possibility is upon us? Messiaen's response seems as timely as it was on its first hearing. It is of course a thoroughgoing expression of his faith and his Catholicism, so that there is hope and transcendence in spite of it all. That this work stands out still as one of the chamber masterpieces of last century and one of Messiaen's most greatly loved works testifies to its beautifully wrought staying power whether you listen with some kind of awareness of the liturgical-mystical roots of the expression or just revel in the melodic and rhythmic brilliance of it all, the declamatory fervency of its dynamic confluence.

The Angel LP of the Quartet that has been a centerpiece of my listening over the years is perhaps slightly less overtly bold, less underscored, less emphatic generally compared to this version. The rhythms are accentuated with the Left Coast edition, there is still a deep passion to it all but just a little more immediacy. It is an extraordinary disk in its own right and with the bonus extra, the eloquent world premiere reading of the Rohde "one wing" (for violin and piano) it is almost as if there is a new last movement to follow--so much does it seem as of a piece in its own way.

If you do not know this Messiaen masterwork here is a good place to hear it. If you already do, this makes a nice contrast with the Angel version. Either way I recommend it very much.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Gregory Rose, Orchestral Works, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Peter Sheppard Skaerved

 

It is true in the realms of music that knowledge draws us ever-closer to the deepest understandings of the inner workings of the art, provided we concentrate and allow it all to get onto our bio-musical pathways. Such is true for the music of Gregory Rose, living British composer of note, and his Orchestra Music (Toccata Classics 0558), his recent volume as recorded by the composer conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

The five works cover a period from 1990 through to 2019, a rather bold collection of orchestral Modernity as Rose so lucidly portrays it. 

The opening 1990 "Birthday Ode for Aaron Copland" has a short, compact duration of four minutes but by its multi-voiced separately orbiting motifs has great power!

There is the mystery of "Red Planet" and it's post-Holstian, post-Varesian depictive orchestral  (2014, rev. 2019) immediacy with rhythmic thrusts that call out expressively in a logical narrative unfolding of inventive orchestral sound.

The "Violin Concerto" (2017) centers around a brilliant frisson between solo violin and orchestra, with strident exclamations and marked aural spectacularizing gestures both exciting and deeply complex, with contrastingly contemplative rejoiners that give pause and set up the listener for dynamic narrations to come. It is a capital /M/ High Modern tour de force that needs to be heard and explored as it is in this fine performance with soloist Peter Sheppard Skaerved taking on the Promethean role with heroic fervor and poetic grace. It is a concerto that deserves to be more widely performed, surely.

Next up, the "Suite pour Cordes" (2017) bursts forward with appealingly strident outburst- of expression and subsequent top spinning rhythmic endlessness and intensity.

The concluding "Seven Dances from Danse macabre" (2011) has an extended "primitive" feeling at times, a more sophisticated dance feel others.  Memorable form is sustained nicely and rhythmically throughout the whole of this music. The full work for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra was released on another Toccata Classics CD (see my coverage of it for the April 26, 2021 posting). These dance excerpts nicely put a lively cap on the program and leave us wanting more.

In the end this is a very attractive, exciting volume of what Rose is up to. It confirms him as a 21st century original with a lot to say and a sure sense of how to get the orchestra to say it.

Gregory Rose is the real thing. This volume presages more excellent things to come. Do listen. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Michael G. Cunningham, Proscenium Moments, Works for Orchestra

 

Composer Michael G. Cunningham is not a household name of course. Nonetheless his music is very worth knowing. I have had the chance to listen to and review a number of releases devoted to his music (type his name in the search box above for those).Today we have a volume of his orchestral works to consider, in a CD entitled Proscenium Moments (Navona Records NV6314). 

The music covers some five original works plus arrangements-orchestrations--of Bach on "A Bach Pre-Symphony" and Faure's "Nocturne No. 6 Op. 63." These two are definitely nice to have and hear but the main attraction centers around the originals.

So we get a choice selection of earnestly Modern works, with thoughtful skill in orchestration, melodic lucidity and harmonic advancement--from the dodecaphonic reminiscent "Impromptu"  (1999) to a wide swatch of slices in time and musical space beginning with the "Counter Currents" (1966) a later "Time Frame" (1980) and "TransActions" (1980) and then a spring forward with an insistently mesmeric and exploratory Modernity-Postmodernity of "Symphony No. 7 (A Cummings Synchrony)," Op. 293.

The vivid impression one gets by listening to this program (very well played by the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronsky and the Janacek Philharmonic under Stanislav Vavrinek) is genuine inventive brilliance along with a sure vision of orchestral sonarity. None of this is in a backward-gazing, retrograve  mold so much as it assumes the accumulated past and goes it all one more, makes a Cunningham of it all.

As the liners tell us. he has been amassing an important body of works since 1958. A close and thorough listen to this volume might tell you what it does me--namely that Cunningham is a US composer of stature, deserving wider acclaim and continued performances. Anyone who welcomes new music will doubtless find this enjoyable and informative. Very recommended.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Inca Trail Connections, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, 20th Century Descriptive Peruvian Region Orchestral Music

 

Never think that you know all there is to know about something more or less finite--like, say, South American orchestral music of the 20th century. Here comes along a volume of works centered around Peru called Inca Trail Connections (Naxos 8.574266). It features quite respectable performances by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya. The title refers to the Caminos del Inca, an ancient roadway that has served over time to connect lands and peoples in the Peruvian region.

The album showcases some eight works from this past century, not precisely doctrinaire Nationalistic but not not either--in other words there are strong folkloric-folk elements as well as local pop influences. a shade of Later Romanticism but then a marked descriptive quality, with attention to orchestration and expressivity that may recall a little Stravinsky or Villa-Lobos, maybe a hint of Chavez. not exactly going out of the way to build an overt Modernism but then unmistakably of the last century (or the very end of the century before) once you listen closely.

The names might not be familiar to you (they were not for me, mostly) but each has something to contribute on this illuminating anthology--Alejandro Tobar in a 1967 work, Alfonso Leng in one from 1912, Alberto Williams, 1889, Jose Carlos Campos, 1981, Santos Cifuentes, 1894, Celso Garrido-Lecca, 1983, Enrique Soro, 1916, and Francisco Pulgar Vidal, 1989.

There is simply too much music to try and describe each. They taken altogether give us a rather varied but interrelated draught of Peruvian expression. It may not upset the apple-cart of contemporary music, but it is thoroughly enjoyable regardless. I recommend it for those willing to consider some interesting orchestral music we might otherwise not get a chance to hear. Listen!


Thursday, May 27, 2021

Archivo de Guatemala, Music from the Guatemala City Cathedral Archive, El Mundo, Richard Savino

 

We traverse through life, those of us who are musically inclined, and cross paths with all kinds of music, if we are lucky enough to stand at various musical crossroads. Today I have an example illuminating to those of us not familiar with early Classical music from Central America. The album is Archivo de Guatemala, Music from the Guatemala City Cathedral Archive (Naxos 8.574295). The music is nicely performed by El Mundo under the direction of Richard Savino.

The 17 relatively brief works gather together multiple strands of the musical lifeways of Guatemala City in the 17th and 18th centuries. Richard Savino has arranged each piece as needed and directs the proceedings. El Mundo consists of two sopranos, a tenor and a bass vocalist, along with the combined instrumental forces of two violins, cello or viola da gamba, percussion, three or four artists alternating on (depending on the piece) Baroque guitar, early Classical guitar, theorbo, and/or lute, then there is a harpist and a harpsichordist to ground the continuo as needed.

Whether the music has a sacred or secular function does not negate the very strong combined influences of local, Spanish and diaspora African folk music, of the alternately strong or otherwise somewhat more subtle influences of  folk dance rhythms. Ensembles differ with every piece, from solo guitar to larger chamber group.

The performers give it their all and that is quite a good bit for sure. The music is lively and striking, moving, rather inimitable at times, not quite like anything I have heard, other times you feel the Spanish or folk elements in less of a hybrid mixture. Either way this is fun, memorable, very worth hearing repeatedly. Bravo!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Lincoln Trio, Trios from the City of Big Shoulders, The Music of Ernst Bacon and Leo Sowerby

 

I had a friend, and may he rest in peace, who so compulsively collected audio music items (LPs and CDs) that it seemed he sometimes took on an adverse reaction to anything he did not already know--as a kind of defense against the insanity of everything-by-everybody accumulation. The fact of course is that music never stops, that there are always new things or old things discovered anew and it simply wont do to "close the books" on everything else. One still needs to pick and choose, but not by refusing everything you do not already know.

A very good example of something that many if not most of us have not paid much attention to and a recent release reminds us that we should--it is the Lincoln Trio and their CD Trios from the City of Big Shoulders (Cedille CDR 90000 203). They refer to Chicago, specifically in the 20th century.

The composers in question are what we might call Early Moderns but decidedly not your typical ones, namely Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) and Leo Sowerby (1895-1968). From Bacon we get the "Trio No. 2 for Violin, Cello and Piano" in its World Premiere Recording. From Sowerby there is the "Trio for violin, violoncello and  pianoforte" (H312). The Bacon work is a later one, from 1987; the Sowerby hails from 1953. Both works are little known, even if perhaps Sowerby the composer is not entirely obscure to us as such. And happily this release marks Cedille's inaugural offering in their several disk series "Summer of Sowerby." Had I not been listening to this first, I might scarcely have noticed such a thing. But this album stands out! And it makes me want to hear more Sowerby.

A word on the style complex the two works have in common: They are both rich in melodic zest, expressionist on the edge of Romanticism but further afield to the Modern in their arcs of harmonic-melodic movement, winding and labyrinthian. The Bacon is on a par with the Sowerby. Both have a dynamic and moving dramatics, with the sort of unfolding edginess of Hindemith perhaps, but perhaps also a slightly more overt nod to a sort of local rootedness, not obvious but at hand in the shadows so to speak.

The Lincoln Trio approaches but works with an elan, a zeal, a sympathy that lets us travel into an emphatic then contemplative opening outwards. Kudos to the Trio and their commitment to unveil lesser known or brand new works with attention to Chicago composers. They work together most impressively, violinist Desiree Ruhstrat, celloist David Cunliffe and pianist Marta Aznavoorian. 

If you are up for something well composed and well played. something from the recent past yet unmistakably belonging to that time, grab this and I think you'll find it worthwhile. It will be out June 11th. Preorder at Presto Music.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Stanley Grill, Remember, Brett Deubner, Viola, Thomas Steigerwald, Piano


 Listening to unfamiliar composers requires ideally a kind of clearing of expectations. Then whatever is the case stands out the more readily. Such was my frame of mind when I first listened to composer Stanley Grill and his album of music for solo viola, and viola and piano, Remember (Navona NV6338).

Stanley Grill was struck by music very early in his life when his mother took him to Carnegie Hall to hear Debussy's  "La Mer." The result was a musical awakening that translated into his initial deep absorption in playing piano and, after an initial introduction to music theory at the Manhattan School of Music, in composition. He was to study with Leon Kirchner, Robert Helps and others before setting off as a compositional artist in his own right. His avid love of Renaissance and Medieval music has influenced his compositional style, his approach to melody, modality and counterpoint.

The compositions in Memory no doubt reflect this but in the first hearing of this music what comes across most readily is a lyrical folkishness, a beauty born of inner sensibility and then what the music does not take on--namely any overt Classical-Romantic influences. In the end there is tonality but in some universal timeless expression. Yes, you will after communing with the music feel some connection with Early Music too. In the end of the experience it matters that it feels fresh and directly inspired by a musical sensibility that ends up seeming original, and it follows of course not in some predictable sense!

If you begin your listen with his treatment of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" you get a pretty good idea of his general musico-compositional approach as you recognize the melody in sometimes startling new settings.. The solo viola pieces give the instrument a wealth of fiddle-like double stops and a kind of archaic country feel. The works for viola and piano afford the listener a multi-voiced, worked-through counterpoint at times and a special approach to harmony at other times.

Violist Brett Deubner and pianist Thomas Steigerwald realize each piece with an unaffected brilliance and sympathy. They seem just right for the music. The five single or multi-movement works lock into a peaceful, pastoral openness that feels timeless and universal at heart. Stanley Grill is a phenomenon who at least with these works crafts a directly accessible presence that seems would appeal to a wide spectrum of music lovers in addition to the serious followers on what is happening in New Music.

Just as advanced tonality has very much further to go to explore itself exhaustively, so we see also does tonality-modality. Very recommended.



Thursday, May 13, 2021

Robert Pollock, Entertwined, Compositions from Five Decades, Cygnus Ensemble, NJ Percussion Ensemble

 

In the ever unfolding world of New Music sometimes it is all about how novel and unprecedented the music is on some level. Other times it is about how well written, how inventive it is. Today we have something of the latter. 

Robert Pollock is a name that did not ring bells for me when this CD arrived recently. Entertwined (Furious Artisans FACD6827), which is subtitled Compositions By Robert Pollock From Five Decades, is a program of some seven chamber works that are thoughtfully and lucidly made up in ways that hold their interest as a whole on first listen and distinguish themselves even more so with repeated listens.

The music has a logical flow to it in the capital /M/ Modern sense. Harmonically sophisticated and slightly edgy, the works hold together well while they keeps an exploratory sensibility that translates into novel solutions and avoids cliché.

Pollock stands out first of all for his imaginative scoring for the classical guitar, as heard on "Romance-Fantasy" for the Anderson-Forsyth guitar-piano duo, "Cygnature Piece" for the Cygnus ensemble of guitar, cello, mandolin, violin, oboe and flute. Then there is "Entertwined" for two guitars, "Metaphor" for solo guitar and "Revolution" for violin, contrabass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, marimba, percussion and guitar. Throughout the guitar writing is fresh yet idiomatic and enters into dialogs as a distinct yet equal participant.

On the other side of Pollock's instrumentation choices are his "Chamber Setting #2" for the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble and "Metaphor" for solo vibraphone, both very interesting in their own right. These works reminds us of Pollock's heightened and naturally forward moving sense of rhythm, but then all the works have something of that going on.

The biographical details of Robert Pollock help us to situate him in space and time. He was born in New York City. He got his BA in Music from Swathmore College, followed by an MFA in Musical Composition from Princeton and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition. From there he embarked on a noteworthy career that has included organizing and presenting numerous concerts, headlining recitals and concerts as pianist, composer,  etc., founding-directing some key New Music composer guilds, serving as composer-in-residence for several institutions, and being the recipient of numerous awards and grants. After many decades and more than 149 compositions we enjoy some chamber gems in this album and look forward to more. 

The rather vast time span of this program, 1976-2007, forms a testament to his unflagging compositional imagination and steady unfolding development as an original voice that well deserves our recognition and appreciation.

Highly recommended.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Music From SEAMUS 30

 

In the '50s and '60s Electronic Music and Musique Concrete were the loci for some of the most advanced of the New Music being generated then. The advent of synthesizers of course changed the playing field and made it possible to do with much greater ease what the earlier composers had to do painstakingly--originally with extensive tape splicing and cumbersome single-tone generation. At some point the distinctly separate genesis of "organic" sounds transformed via Musique Concrete and the contrasting production of signals from purely electronic sources in Electronic Music began to break down (and perhaps had not been as rigidly adhered to in the US school from the beginning). Synthesized sound increasingly found their way into popular and commercial settings too so that today there has been a vast transformation of the sound landscape out there.

Yet of course Electronic Music as an art form in New Music has never disappeared so much as shared the aural stage with other genres. Sound color and the ability to execute musical complexities beyond the ability of the conventional instrumentalist were always key elements in the compositional mix. As time passed the concept of an aural landscape stretched out into virtual organic unfoldings of a continuously evolving and continuous expression began to become a key to the Electronic Music or Electro-Acoustic experience--though one could argue that it had already been very much present for example in Stockhausen's "Gesang der Junglinge" and "Kontakte." The term "Electro-Acoustic" became current, reflecting the melding that had taken place.

To fast forward into today, there is plenty of interesting music to be heard, including a flowering of live electronic possibilities and ever more poetic soundscapes out there. Anyone who follows this blog knows something of what has been taking place.

Cue the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). It was founded in 1984. As their website states it is "a non-profit national organization of composers, performers, and teachers of electro-acoustic music representing every part of the country and virtually every music style. Electro-acoustic music is a term used to describe those musics which are dependent on electronic technology for their creation and/or performance." Their annual conference and juried recording projects are a key component to their presence on the scene today. 

And so we come to a recording of music coming out of their recent gatherings and projects, Music from SEAMUS 30 (EAM 2021 690277900495). It includes nine compositions that reflect the current state-of-the-art as practiced by SEAMUS Electro-Acoustic composers.

The opening "Monstress" (2019) for piano, Seaboard Rise and electronics by Christopher Biggs is a great place to start, for its skillful transformation and integration of the piano spectrum of sound into a widely colorful pallet of extensions.

Elizabeth Hoffman's "clouds pattern" (2021) give us another nicely eloquent sound color essay. 

From there we have additional works by Joo Won Park, Julie Herndon, Mei-ling Lee, Jiayue Cecilia Wu, Kelley Sheehan and Heather Stebbins. Lyn Goeringer ends the program with "Waterside," a rather haunting melange of acoustical transformations fascinating to hear and re-hear. Like many of these kinds of anthologies, there are works that appeal to me very much and others that I find less interesting. Part of that may have to do with whether the source materials have intrinsic interest to me in the first place. And that is not to say that we all will react to them in the same way, not that each has the considerable ambiguity in kind of aural Rorshact. But it is certainly true that meeting a work half-way helps you more often than not to understand the totality of it.

In the end such music deserves our support, such composers need an audience of serious listeners. The works that grab me make this experience worthwhile. I am glad that SEAMUS continues to thrive. Help support them by getting this music.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Harry Partch, The Bewitched, Harry Partch Ensemble, Danlee Mitchell

 

In a century remarkable for its musical fomentation (in the sense of a "poultice"), its inclusion of Harry Partch (1901-1974)  was perhaps one of the most revolutionary developments overall. His pioneering aggregation of an entire orchestra of newly invented instruments, his groundbreaking forays into alternate tuning and his compositional acuity made him special even in a special age.

The recording and release of his Delusion of the Fury after its 1969 premiere was perhaps the most decisive moment in recognition he was to experience in his lifetime. But of course there were other releases and performances that gradually built his reputation prior to this. 

Nowadays of course we happily find there is more of him to hear. For example his "dance satire" The Bewitched  has been performed and recorded more than once in later years. Not having experienced either I was glad to find that  Neuma Records has issued the 1980 Berlin performance of the Partch Ensemble under Danlee Mitchell. It is "binaural" and very much focused and clear enough that you get the idea of what it was like to sit in the audience.

The music combines some of Partch's home-made percussion complexities with conventional instruments and vocals. Because of that kind of mid-positioning aurally it is not nearly as dramatic as "Delusion" but for anyone who loves Partch it is a most welcome, ambitious addition to our understanding of his overall opus. It is worth your time.

For the reason of good performance I heartily recommend it to any Partch enthusiasts. If you do not know this one it will open up a new vista. Those that do not know Partch at all however might start with Delusion of the Fury. This one is essential for the Partch fan or completist. I am very happy to have it myself. I am glad to recommend it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Philip Glass, The Glass Hour, Gregory Harrington, World Premiere of The Hours Suite, Janacek Philharmonic, Mark Shapiro

 

Philip Glass of course has written many compelling works over his career. Some I like better than others, and some performances fully convince while others as with any music of this sort might fall a bit short at times.

Today I am happy to report in on a program of Glass works that fall into the former category. It is violinist Gregory Harrington with the Janacek Philharmonic uuder Mark Shapiro. The CD is entitled The Glass Hour (Estile Records) and it contains the world premiere recording of "The Hours Suite" for Solo Violin and String Orchestra plus the Violin Concerto No. 2 "The American Four Seasons".

Both works have Minimalist repetitions but often more as kinds of arpeggios in idiomatic string ways than as mesmeric hypnotics. The combination of violin solo unfolding and orchestral-string sound blanket seems nicely quasi-neo-Baroque more than typically Minimal and the sweetly reflective Harrington and enveloping orchestral wrap seem just right for this music.

Glass Hour, in short, has everything going for it. It is later Philip Glass at his best and Gregory Harrington puts it all together with Mark Shapiro and the Janacek Philharmonic for what seems to me destined to be the benchmark standard. Bravo!


Monday, May 3, 2021

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Complete Violin Sonatas, Volume Three, Yuri Kalnits, Michael Csanyi-Wills

 

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) has become after his death regarded as a major 20th century compositional voice. There are reasons of course why he got proper recognition only in this century and there is no need to explore that here. The main thrust of it all is our ability to be exposed to his music in a major way now. A great example of that is the recording of his Complete Violin Sonatas, of which we now have a Volume Three (Toccata Classics TOCC 0096).

Yuri Kalnits gives us a committed, dynamic and wonderfully expressive performance on violin throughout. Michael Csanyi-Wills compliments Kalnits nicely on piano, making a poetic twosome that I suspect the composer would be very happy about.

The opening Sonata No. 3 (1947) has marvelous depth, bitter-sweet, tart modern presence and a glorious sense of opening onto our musical perceptions. There is endless melodic-harmonic movement that Weinberg has in common with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and yet by this point (1947) he has his own way of unfolding it all.

The Sonata No. 3 for Violin Solo (1979) has dramatic torque and a finely exploratory resonance that gives us a leaner, more abstract projecting than the earlier work perhaps. It is fascinating and deep in its wholeness and Kalnits defines and realizes it with a grand flourish one appreciates.

The program is topped off  with the rather late (1982) Sonata No. 6 for Violin and Piano, which brings an expanded sense of space and time, a kind of meditative side more apparent and striking in how it all lays out.

After listening a good bit I must say that this volume in my view gives us some further aspects of Weinberg that help round out a portrait of him in chamber music form.

If you do a "Weinberg" search on the left-hand corner of this page you can find other related reviews I've done here. The Volume Three of the sonatas after living with for a week or so seems to me well worth your efforts to hear--for it gives us some gems of the later period and the performances are world-class. Very recommended.