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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Last Song, Una Sveinbjarnardottir, Tinna Porsteinsdottir, Music for Violin and Piano

As a reviewer there are some albums that come to me and I cannot easily gauge what they will be until I listen. That was the case with Icelandic composer-violinist Una Sveinbjarnardottir and her Last Song (Sono Luminus DSL-92248). 

It consists of a wisely diverse set of works for violin and piano with a good sampling of Icelandic composers plus interesting arrangements and/or interpretations of music early through the beginning of last century.

We hear in Sveinbjarnardottir a violinist with a special sound, very sweet and expressive but not precisely like Heifetz sweet. There is a burnished, wood-metal clarity that sets her playing apart as she applies her ultra-musical interpretive skills to each piece for a result that is delightful, that stands out. At the same time pianist Tinna Porsteinsdottir makes an expressively perfect , very well matched duo partner throughout. 

Una's title composition "Last Song Before the News" has depth and mystery and serves to top off the program in a most appealing and memorable way. The prepared piano plays against a rhapsodic violin line and it all sounds great!

All the ins and the outs of the program serve to increase our initial recognition of the wonder of the vibrancy of Una and Tianna's rather glorious synergy and ravishing sound.

The overall thrust of the chosen repertoire reflects the artistry of the duo and shows it off well. I will not try and give a detailed, blow-by-blow description. 

Una's "Last Song Before the News" alludes to Icelandic Radio Ras who plays an Icelandic lullaby, love song or ode to nature just before the news each time according to the station's plan. It suggested to Una "apocalyptic visions" of what that news might bring. The works leading to her final piece were meant to suggest a wide ranging period, each work representing a momentary clarity before a great change, a place between nostalgia and anticipation, along with a certain yearning. Now that is a lot to take in via these words, but a thorough exposure to this program should put it all together for you. It is not precisely a post-Modern place so much as it encapsulates the now of the present and simultaneously that now as past and present, expressive depth and independent lyrical fullness, a poeticism that transcends any given style parameter.

Beyond the overriding theme, the music chosen remains of interest along with the striking performances of it all. So first off  we get a slew of Icelandic composers of the 20th and 21st century. Whether you know any of these composers from exposure or you do not, the music has real impact. So we appreciate a suite by Jorunn Vioar, whom the composer calls the "grand lady" of Icelandic music. Then there is a pioneering counterpart, another woman with brilliance, Iceland's Karolina Eiriksdottir. Then there is Magnus Blondal Johannsson and his unusual and effective synthesis of Romantic and Modern elements, and his successor protégé Atli Heimir Sveinsson (1938-2019), Una's special mentor, friend and duo partner.

From there we have an interesting assortment of works and(re)arrangements of things that follow the theme, are "light" as they are "longing." There are works by Louis Couperin, Christoph Gluck, Ole Bull, Jules Massenet, Claudio Monteverdi and  Hildegard von Bingen. 

The entire volume is unified in ways not often found. The duo soars and does perfect justice to each work. A remarkable effort I would say. Very recommended.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Chelsea Guo, Chopin in My Voice


Music that has withstood time's entropy is never out of season. Any new artist that devotes herself to the music is potentially worthwhile, of course. There is necessarily room for multiple interpretations. That means we should recognize the worthy ones when we come across them. Pianist-soprano Chelsea Guo is unquestionably one of those. She comes to us with poetically heartfelt readings of Chopin for solo piano, and then she further astonishes with ravishingly beautiful performances of two works for voice and piano, played and sung by Ms. Guo simultaneously and wonderfully well.

It is as good an example of any of why one must listen to a new offering without presumption. Chelsea Guo's Chopin in My Voice (Orchid Classics ORC 100167) gives us an idea  of what to expect in the title wording. The "voice" reference is key--first off because Ms. Guo's pianism gives us Chopin (his Preludes, Fantasie, etc.) with considerable concentric and insightful phraseology.

She makes the piano sing, with subtle shadings, authentic feeling, focused beauty. Hers is perhaps less extraverted that some readings, especially from the early days of the LP--the fifties. In any event her versions hold up remarkably well with a lot of listens. Her style is brilliantly fluid. Chopin would have been pleased, I think She handles it with all warmth, and poetic precision. without the overblown gush of some grandstanding versions from the past.

And then her soprano comes to us with a tender lyricism while she accompanies herself nicely on the piano. Chopin's "Etude Op. 10 No.3" appears here in a version with a soprano line emerging out of the original piano part and lyrics by Ernst Marischko. It and the ensuing Rossini aria from La Gazza Ladra stand out with a stunning presence. If Ms. Guo's voice was not disarmingly lyrical, lovely, there would be less reason to appreciate the melding. But in fact her voice is every bit as good as her piano playing! And all that makes the album special. This album. We are immersed in the timeless beauty of the music and we begin to appreciate that we have something very gratifying to hear, indeed. Chelsea Guo is special.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Agnese Toniutti, Subtle Matters, New Music for Piano


As one rides along with the ups and downs of life there will be times when habitual reactions to everyday activities undergo more intense scrutiny, especially when living circumstances may be less than ideal. It is in those moments when your commitment to something seemingly without much recompense gets put to the test. Pandemic, economic struggle and world strife may cause you (on a Monday morning) to wonder why one persists at something seemingly without a lot of life survival opportunities attached. So I listen to pianist Agnese Toniutti's Subtle Matters (Neuma 138) and come to appreciate it while wondering if what I think of it matters a whole lot. Then I remember how much I appreciated in the past someone who took the time to listen to my music. What is the point of music if it is not listened to, discussed, appreciated?

So I continue. John Cage once made some reference to his music in relation to a Zen rock garden. I do not recall exactly what he said but the idea was that the elements of the rock garden--rocks, sand, little rake, patterned marks around the rocks--all of it was more than the simple elements might signify on their own. There is a series of visions and states one might attain by raking the sand and looking at the totality. So too for example one of Cage's prepared piano works--with repeated listens ideally brings you to something more than the timbral specifics, the ritual sorts of rhythms and tones per se. There is a kind of more heightened awareness one might glean as one listens. And perhaps that is a key factor in fully appreciating what he is about.

So the same might appropriately be said for Agnese Toniutti's rather wide-ranging program of avant extended technique, sound-color piano oompositions that make up today's CD. In all we experience some six single or multi-movement works, one for toy piano, the rest for an open vision of piano sounding made by conventional fingering but also by plucking, strumming, dampening and/or otherwise altering the piano string sound, following and furthering the technical innovations pioneered by composers like Cowell, Cage and Crumb.

So we get a kind of extension of the original extensions with adventuresome works by Lucia Dlugoszewski (1925-2000), Tan Dun (b. 1957) and Phillip Corner (b. 1933). As one might come to expect with such ultra-current extended piano pieces there is a sheer reveling in exotic sonic possibilities both pitched and noise-derived, a sometimes ritualistic gestural spaciousness, and a dramatically ambient architectonics of subtlety, as the album title suggests. Ms. Toniutti impresses with the practiced ease with which she moves from sound event to sound event.

Agnese Toniutti takes to these works with enthusiasm, imagination and eventful awareness. As one re-listens a few times the structural and sensual elements of each work becomes more pronounced and readily understandable, until in the end you see that no piece is arbitrary but rather poetically sensible and comprehensible in the pianist's vision of each segment.

The music vacillates between high abstraction, cavernous atmospherics and post-ethnic primality. In so doing the album sums up the spectrum and state-of-the-art for the continuingly fertile extended technique pianisms operative today. I warmly recommend it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Fantasy, Oppens Plays Kaminsky, New Music for Piano and Instruments


I have admired the piano virtuosity of Ursula Oppens for some time now. So it was a given for me to pay attention when in the mail I found a copy of her recent CD Fantasy: Oppens Plays Kaminsky (Cedille 90000 202). I was glad to hear it. And it turns out after multiple listens I am still quite happy about it.

Laura Kaminsky (b. 1956) has not been on my radar until now. It turns out that she writes abundantly inventive, expressionistically poised music that is neither at the edge of tonality, nor is it completely tonal-centric. It is well phrased, somewhat spicy, moody fare. It is the sort of music that improves as you listen again and again. And stylistically it is as thoughtfully beyond as any camp of New Music per se.If there are folk and mesmeric primal tonal intervallic modes, there is also dissonance and everything manages to convey a new musical sensibility in its own way.

Ms. Oppens excels in her readings of the music, from the solo intricacies of "Fantasy," to the piano four-hand maze-like animated yet introspective density of "Reckoning: Five Minatures for America" with Jerome Lowenthal. Then there are the twists and turns of the Piano Quartet (with the Cassatt String Quartet) and the formidable and expressively triumphant  "Piano Concerto" with the Arizona State University Orchestra under Jeffery Meyer. The abstract linear flow of the piano part is an amazing thing to experience, happily. And the orchestra part bolsters and carries forward the momentum in a rather profound way. 

In short we come away from this with a definitely complex and pleasurable feeling for Ms. Kaminsky's music. This is not a monolithic, single-sounded sameness that we can sometimes get nowadays.  On the contrary it is delightfully plural and open, fearless of expanded tonality or primal intervallic magic alike.

All of this music and its inspired performance totals up to an album that establishes new and stylistically worthwhile territory for a furthering of the Modern project. This is in no way a mechanical step forward as it is a nicely, directly active creative articulation that stands on its own as singular.

It is all a very good addition to the music of today. Oppens comes through and everybody puts in a remarkably consistent showing of it all. It makes me want to hear more of Laura Kaminsky, for sure. Bravo Ms. Oppens for giving us this music with, as always, the brilliance she brings to our music world. Recommended for all those who wax pianistic and modernistic. This is a substantial listen.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Robert Moran, Points of Departure


I have gladly coverd the music of Robert Moran on these pages before (type his name in the search box above), but as can be the case with relatively unfamiliar voices in the New Music, one can get something substantial from additional new releases. So is the case with the new CD of his chamber orchestra works, Points of Departure (Neuma 123).

The program covers five works in all, and each has a kind of essence of its own. This is music of the New or Radical Tonality, soundscapes, suspensions, sometimes probingly sustained, sometimes moving along in not-quite-modal fashion but not harmonically modulatory much either, yet the passagework has an almost neo-classical ratio on some parts, but not in any particularly expected way.

The entire program is sympathetically performed by the University of Delaware Orchestra conducted by James Allen Anderson. There are a very few rough-and-ready moments but they are made up for by a rather supremely comprehending approach to it all. And in the end you surely get the kind of straightforward presentation this music deserves in its brand-new mode.. Some things sound happily post-Feldmanesque in their quietude and flow, others have a very slight suggestion of Minimalism that nonetheless avoids getting stuck (so to speak) in an exclusively processual flow. Radical Tonality is a label that does not totally pin the music down but indeed helps suggest what this music does

Every work is a plant-like growth of its own, and yet the sum total is of a long expressive arc.

The title work "Point of Departure" begins the program in a throbbing and variable kind of pedal point that juxtaposes readily with the vivid colors of the tonal overlay that sets the music off.

"Angels of Silence" is a ravishing 22-minute hushed sustain diatonically tonal enough to evoke a kind pf primal quality, with enough spice-like chromatic or multi-diatonic chordal additions to contrast the endess flow with some realistic grit that happily fails to interrupt the rapturous continuity. It is exceedingly beautiful to me.

"Frammenti di un opera barocca perduta" gives us that same flowing diatonics with a Neo-Baroque unfolding and some beautiful counertenor from Daniel Bubeck. Nothing modulates so much as it makes coherence out of tonal primality.

"Star Charts and Travel Plans I" has an unfolding eventfulness that nevertheless keeps a prirooted tonality alive in brilliantly variational ways

The final "Yahrzeit" brings in basso profundo Zachary James, who continues fleshing out the fairy tale world in a somewhat different but nevertheless equally worthwhile way.

So there we have it. It is more and more captivating to me the more I hear it. A big bravo! This truly is NEW Music and so we are much the better for hearing it, I would say. Very recommended.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Varese, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Baldini. Orchestral Music, Munich Radio Orchestra, UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Cuckson, Haft. Christian Baldini


If the Space Age has resumed (with Space-X, etc.) then High Modernism cannot be too far behind? Not that it ever has gone away but it has not been as much of a touchpoint as it once was. No matter, for there is good music being made still. An excellent example just now filling my ears is a new anthology of Orchestral Music Live, Varese, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, & Baldini (Centaur CRC 3879), featuring Christian Baldini conducting the Munich Radio Orchestra and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloists Miranda Cuckson or Maximilian Holt alternating in the solo spot for half the program.

Baldini turned to these unedited live recordings from 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2019 as he and all of us experienced the first COVID-19 lockdown and the abrupt cessation of all live performances the world over. As if to offer a rejoiner to the viral devastation we all experienced on multiple levels, this group of works and very live recordings in some ways acts as a ritual charm, a kind of mantra magic for the future continuation of the concert universe. The works and composers reflect Baldini's personally influenced attitude toward the program as performer and composer, and then nicely and fittingly opens with a work of hs own that fits quite readily with the rest, that is in every way good company for the more well-known Classical Modernists.

That opener, Baldini's "Elapsing Twilight Shades" (2008, rev 2012), establishes the kind of  ultramodern sonic landscapes that are a legacy and a basis for Baldini's considerably eloquent orchestral approach.

And appropriately the stylistic clustering he has been influenced by appear nicely too in the versions of the works he conducts on this program.

It is all strikingly landscape-soundscape-like, where phrases flow concurrently and do not puncuate as heavily as they might hve in other and earlier performnces. So "Ameriques," a wonderful work surely, has sometging of an emphasis on its horizontal axis, predominent and interestingly so. It is by no means a perfect recording. Others are probably more driving and together but then this version forces you to feel the music passing perhaps a bit more, and some sections you hear differently and get something more from perhaps than the versions you have come to know, which of course is a reason to have more than one version of a work.. It is nice to hear, as is the whole of this album.

The Lutowslawski "Chain 2" (1985) for violin and orchestra is remarkable in itself and for Maximilian Haft's violin performance as well as the orchestra at large. It is a genuine find if you have not heard it before.

Similarly the Ligeti "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" (1989, rev. 1993) revels in Miranda Cuckson's reading and the orchestral presence. It is a wonderful work in a significant reading.

The unedited live recording reminds us that things do not have to be perfect to be rewarding and illuminating. The live spontaneity means there are some imperfections here and there, but after a time you fogive the very occasional flub for the way everything hangs together in the absolute now.

I recommend this one heartily for New Music devotees and newcomers alike. The music demands much from the performers and they surmount the live situation with fire and poise combined. Molto Bravo!

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Christina Petrowska Quilico, Sound Visionaries, French Modern Masterworks for Solo Piano, Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez


For a new recording to be important it should have a number of things going for it. Pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico's recent album Sound Visionaries (Navona NV6358) has many such things going on throughout. First off, the compositions are uniformly excellent and not ordinarily found together in this combination. It zeroes in on three masters of Modern solo piano from last century, with well chosen works that epitomise the Modern French school from its iconic beginnings to its full flowering some years later.

Ms. Quilico begins with Claude Debussy's "Preludes Book Two," When pulled out of the flow of Debussy's output ad placed on a less cluttered display where it can be more impactful for its singularity, when performed so expressively and filled with life as it is here, you are reminded of just how advanced this music was and, indeed, still is. All eight movements are bursting with narrative color and fire, from the opening mystery of "Mists/Fog" to the declamatory "Fireworks." Of course this music to be played well takes a lot of technique and equally a good deal of imagination. Ms. Quilico has both in abundance and so gives us the kind of dynamic reading that stretches our musical understanding.

As it does all that, it within the album's chronological sequence forms the bedrock for French Modernist piano, as well it deserves to do. As such it sets us up for the next step, Messiaen's bold, strident "Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus" in its beautifully advanced seven movements. Rhythmically supercharged, harmonically-melodically edgy, filled with Messiaen's special vitality in its original mature form (1944). I listen with a feeling of great presence and musical wisdom.

To make the full trip into High Modernism we get two wonderful Pierre Boulez works, "Premiere Sonate" and "Troisieme Sonate Pour Piano," both helping define Serialism for good and all, with brilliance and poetic verve, but too with a Frenchness that has a sonically deep footprint. The performances as with the Messiaen and the Debussy mark an undoubted  high point in the pianistic personality of Chrstian Quilico. Her readings are technical triumphs but then always with the utmost musicality, which marks it all as pretty much definitive.

All the things that in this way define this program as special--performance, composition choice, etc., establish this as indispensible listening for New Music enthusiasts or acolytes alike. Get this and dive in!

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Raffi Besalyan, The Sound of Black & White, Piano Music of Khachaturian, Levant, Wild 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, the Earl Wild and the Oscar Levant kind of Jazzy Modernism, perhaps somewhat less true of the Aram Khatchaturian 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, Wild 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 Wild and Levant were champions of Gershwin and Levant of Khachaturian as acclaimed pianists of their day, and then too both composers compositions fit in with and further that stylistic complex we associate with Grshwin.

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 and Earl Wild works are gems, not as often heard as they should be. The Levant Sonatina is playful, firey and dynamic. Besalyan plays it with real sympathy, rhythmic drive and Modern snap. Equally exciting is the Wild "Four Etudes on Gershwin Songs," reminding us that Gershwin in his most infectous songs was coming at Jazz in his own right and Wild puts that forward ever more pronouncedly in a Modern Classical zone here, though the superarpeggiated aspects point to a furtherance 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 album. Besalyan is an ideal vehicle for this music, in many ways setting or furthering a benchmark for the various works. Bravo!