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Friday, April 24, 2015

Howard Blake, Diversions, Benedict Kloeckner

An English composer with a pronounced lyrical gift, Howard Blake (b. 1938) is perhaps best known for his soundtrack to the feature cartoon, "The Snowman," which has a hauntingly beautiful refrain "Walking in the Air" for boy soprano and orchestra. He has a body of more "serious" works though, and we can hear some of how that sounds on a new recording featuring works for cello and piano, Diversions (SWR2/Genuin 15346). Benedict Kloeckner takes on the cello role for these works and sounds terrific. Howard Blake himself handles the piano part with dramatic credibility.

These are modern lyric pieces that show us Blake the gritty but mellifluous contemporary composer in a series of six compositions, all but one enjoying world premier recordings in the versions presented. This is music of a pronounced tonality but without anything in the way of a neo-classical glance at the past. He may certainly have something of the romantic in him, but like Samuel Barber it is so individual that you don't find yourself saying, "yes, that is Brahmsian...that is Mendelssohnian, etc." The works hold their own as contemporary music with a pronounced Blakean signature affixed. There is nothing banally "new age" sounding to them either. The music is filled with inventive flourishes that evince a fertile creative mind at work.

The piano parts occasionally step into the spotlight but mostly this is music that gives the cellist a chance to take a singing melodic lead. Kloeckner responds with an extraordinarily vibrant tone and rhapsodic lucidity.

There is nothing in the way of filler. Each work has something to say. We get a touching rendition of "Walking in the Air" that reminds us how well-constructed the deceptively straightforward song is. But then we get more complexly lyrical works in the title work "Diversions for Cello & Piano," in "Pennillion for Cello & Piano," the "Cello Sonata," and "The Enchantment of Venus." The program concludes with a short and very lovely "Archangel's Lullaby" and we are done.

This is music any classical Anglophile will appreciate. It has an accessibility that will appeal to a large audience, potentially. And it is rousingly good music. It is not high modernist but it is thoroughly contemporary. It has a special quality to it that belongs very much to the musical personality of Howard Blake.

Very much recommended.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

George Rochberg, Complete Flute Music 1, Christina Jennings

Stateside composer George Rochberg (1918-2005) was one of the first prominent serialists to abandon the imposed rigor of high modernism when he suffered the death of his son in 1964. From that point on his music turned back to a modern tonality, using baroque, romantic and original means to craft an equally personal style.

It is music from the later period we hear in his Complete Flute Music 1 (Naxos 8.559776), the first in a series of volumes featuring flautist Christina Jennings in the spotlight role. Christina is not only a flautist of great technical and artistic ability, she also is the daughter of Andrew Jennings, the second violinist of the celebrated Concord String Quartet, who rehearsed Rochberg String Quartets in the Jennings home as she grew up. So Rochberg's music was something she absorbed at an early age.

The sympathy she early-on gained comes through nicely in her performance here of three very evocative works.

"Caprice Variations" is a series of 20 freely treated variations on the well-known Paganini theme, originally written for solo violin. Ms. Jennings has transcribed 20 of them for the solo flute, with the principal theme stated at the end. It all sounds perfectly suited for flute and Ms. Jennings projects the various melodic moods with a beautiful tone and lively phrasing that seems quite right. There are times when her virtuosity seems virtually unparalleled in this performance. Bravo!

What follows are two works in Rochberg's "Ukiyo-e" series, Number 3, "Between Two Worlds, Five Images for Flute and Piano" (1982) and Number 2, "Slow Fires of Autumn, for Flute and Harp" (1979).

Lura Johnson takes on the piano role in Number 3, which is marked by a modern expressivity that has a palpable relation to shakuhachi music from Japan, only transformed into Rochberg's own idiom. The same might be said also of Number 2, which is distinguished by some very effective scoring for harp, which sounds almost koto-like. June Han does a fine job with the harp part. This work has the shimmer of impressionism, with a clear lineage going back to Debussy and Ravel, but with a pronounced traditional Japanese influence and a special Rochbergian twist as well.

For these two wonderfully poetic "Ukiyo-e" works, excellently performed and very much Rochberg at his best, it is worth the price of admission alone. But then you get the engaging "Caprice Variations" as a very pleasurable bonus. Christina Jennings soars with wondrous performances that satisfy, and Johnson and Han sound perfect in their parts as well.

It is vintage later Rochberg, music that is accessible to all listeners who make the effort, but a welcome addition to those who already appreciate Rochberg and his version of later modernism. It is a winner!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Gregory W. Brown, Moonstrung Air, Choral and Vocal Music

When it comes to vocal ensemble and choral music, the contemporary music world seems to offer less of it these days, as compared with chamber and orchestral works. That is my impression. Why that is I do not know, but when the music presents itself I tend to pay attention. A nicely put-together volume of modern contemporary works for voice can be had in Gregory W. Brown's Moonstrung Air (Navona 5989). It features six works performed variously by three top-tier groups, the larger choral ensemble The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, the mid-sized "Spring" Ensemble with Eric Dudley, and the vocal quartet New York Polyphony. The first and last ensembles have been critically acclaimed for their previous recordings; the middle group would appear to be specially formed for Brown's "Spring" but sound very good as well.

Gregory W. Brown's vocal music has a good bit of the influence of early polyphony and folk-archaic strains, but reshaped to his own personality, with the tang of the modern to remind you that this is music of today. This is not music that follows strictly or consistently the pre-Palestrinian or Palestrinian rules of counterpoint yet has beautifully fashioned part writing that evinces some of the aura of earlier times.

The "Missa Charles Darwin" performed by New York Polyphony and the "Vidi Aquam" by the Crossing are high points in the early-in-the-late mode, very convincingly wrought. "Three American Folk Hymns" makes use of old American vernacular and shape-note hymns redone with real charm. "Entrai, Pastores, Entrai" is based on an old Portuguese Christmas carol. "Spring" has as its text a translation of an Ancient Greek text by Anacreon. "Five Women Bathing in Moonlight" sets the poetry of Richard Wilbur, depicting a seaside excursion in the 1940s.

The performances are exemplary, the sound excellent and the compositions show us that Gregory W. Brown takes to vocal writing as a natural. The music has eloquence, verve and old-in-new panache.

I find the music uniformly delightful. It will appeal to those who respond to contemporary choral music and no doubt also to those who might prefer early music. There is enough to thoroughly engage and please both camps, and those in the middle.

Very enjoyable and nicely done!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Borut Krzisnik, Valse Brutal

As I noted last April 2, 2014 (see that post), Borut Krzisnik composes music that is winningly biting and brusque, brutal in engaging ways. It is true of the last one, Stories from Magatrea, and it is true, perhaps even more so, of his latest Valse Brutal (Claudio Contemporary 6006-2). He is relatively young (b. 1961), apparently hails from Slovenia, and is very talented.

Valse Brutal includes seven interrelated movements/pieces that convincingly create a virtual orchestra from extensive orchestral samples. What makes it all work well sonically is the widely diverse orchestral sound excerpts of strings and other instruments playing expressively in both conventional and unconventional ways, things that live orchestras are called upon to do in avant orchestral settings today.

The music is a sort of equivalent of "Guernica" and "The Rites of Spring"--it is dealing with the absurdity of war and tends rightly to have a savage quality to it. But it sounds not like Stravinsky or anyone else in its purely musical aspects, though their are prominent rhythmic tendencies that are in the forefront much of the time--in no way, though, derived from the "Rites," but rather parallel to it in its originality.

Instead we get ultra-modern, ultra-expressive music that belongs to the present in its fundamentally new quality but hearkens back to expressive high-modernism in its feeling.

There is a poignancy to the music, a real beauty in its bleakness that I find irresistible. And in a moment you forget that this is a virtual orchestra because the phrasing is so convincing. And the music marks a composer of, dare I say, brilliant invention and imagination.

Anyone who seeks the cutting-edge in modern orchestral music today should listen to this one, preferably more than once. If you have the cash to buy it, by all means I recommend you do. Startlingly excellent!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Carl Czerny, Bel Canto Concertante, Virtuoso Variations for Piano and Orchestra

Anyone who took classical piano lessons for any length of time sooner or later tackled some of the technically oriented exercises of Carl Czerny (1791-1857). These are cornerstone pedagogical staples and have been for a long time. Yet during his life Carl Czerny was as much known for his formal compositions. With time the latter have largely gone unperformed for many years and are all-but-forgotten these days. Yet there are from time-to-time recordings available that show what he could do, and it can make for pretty impressive listening.

Today's compilation of "Virtuoso Variations for Piano and Orchestra," Bel Canto Concertante (Naxos 8.573254) gives you a good 70 minutes of works that Czerny himself classified under "brilliant pieces for concerts," as opposed to his more "serious works." And indeed, these sparkle with dazzling piano parts, have much to offer in the way of accessibility, but do not go out of their way to go beyond charm. All four concerted pieces included in the album are variations on a particularly well-received opera of the day, Bellini's "Norma," Auber's "Fra Divolo," Bellini's "Il Pirata," and Pacini's "Gli Arabi nelle Gallie." These were operas whose principal melodies were, one presumes, familiar to most in the audience (imagine that today with a contemporary opera?) and Czerny's goal was to write a series of bright and bubbling variations that would be likely to please concertgoers.

For this recording the exuberantly virtuoso piano parts are quite nicely performed by Rosemary Tuck. The venerable English Chamber Orchestra under Richard Bonynge ably and enthusiastically provide the orchestra backdrop.

In the end this music does not convince us that Czerny's modern neglect is unjustified. For that there are compositions on the serious side. What this album gives us is a lighthearted, skin-deep beauty that now seems naive and perhaps can endear because of that. It is a thoroughly delightful and beautifully performed late-classical/early-romantic repast of musical bon bons and hot chocolate. It is not music that stands out as seminal or even very important, yet it has charms and gives you a refreshing sort of palate-cleansing in between more substantial musical courses.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Bernstein, Thirteen Anniversaries, Alexandre Dossin

When you think of Leonard Bernstein, you do not usually think of the piano, yet there is where he started, and those familiar with his music will recall that his "Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety" has a prominent piano part. He left behind when he passed a number of compositions for solo piano, many written in his early period. Thirteen Anniversaries (Naxos 8.559756) gives us an excellent sample of his output in this realm, with three works written in 1937-38, one in 1943, and the title suite, which he set down in final form in 1988, just two years before his death.

Alexandre Dussin handles the performance duties on piano, and he does so with a near-perfect understanding of the stylistic worlds they dwell in. He seems very much the right pianist for this music.

The program begins with the very memorable "Sonata for the Piano" (1938), a work that has a modern flair and some definite jazz feeling at times. It is an excellent work, an initial flourishing of that special brilliance of Bernstein that incorporates elements of the zeitgeist without sounding at all eclectic.

From there we encounter the two varied and fascinating sets of miniatures Bernstein wrote for friends and colleagues, the "Seven Anniversaries" (1943) and the title track, "Thirteen Anniversaries" (1988). These are rather brilliant sketches that show Bernstein's great feel for the piano and an individual approach that nonetheless draws on the influence of some of the century's great piano composers. The movement "For Jessica Fleischmann" some will recognize as a principal theme from the ballet "Dybbuk." But otherwise this is music we have not heard much, perhaps most of us not at all.

The final two brief works, "Music for the Dance II" (1938) and "Non Troppo Presto" (1937) enjoy their first recordings. They add to the already excellent program.

In the end anyone who appreciates Bernstein the composer will find in this music a more intimate side of his music. Anyone interesting in the modern 20th century oeuvre will also be intrigued and pleased with this, I would think. It adds a very worthwhile dimension to our understanding of Bernstein and has a greatly pleasing quality in itself, irrespective of its place in the scheme of things.

Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Electronic Masters, Vol. 1

Electronic Music arose in response to the advent of the tape recorder, which made it feasible to juxtapose and edit disparate sounds and transform them via various processing techniques. Tape splicing, electronic oscillators, the rise of increasingly sophisticated sound filtering devices and of course the coming of the synthesizer led to a body of works that reinforced modernism's belief in science and technology as a means to project us into the world of the future. And the music also reflected the modernist agenda of increased sound color and, eventually, the Serialist development of increasingly complex rhythmic appearances of a wide range of pitches, registers and timbres in a pointillistic matrix.

Perhaps the peak of the initial phase of electronic music was reached with Stockhausen's monumental "Hymnen" a long work whose main source material was the national anthems of every country on the planet. Sometime in the early-ish '70s of last century electronic music ceased to be given the public attention it had and composers tended to go underground, though much of the innovations especially via synthesizers entered into pop, rock, r&b, rap and other mainstream musics where it remains today.

The millenium and the rise of digital production has given Electronic Music a new life, and we can hear new composers and new compositions more readily and more abundantly these days if we look for it.

A good example is an anthology of new electronic music in two volumes. Today we tackle Electronic Masters, Vol. 1 (ablaze 00011). On it we are treated to six works by six new music electronic composers: Sangbong Nam, Charles Nichols, Daniel Blinkhorn, Arthur Gottschalk, George Kouvaras and Paul Oehlers.

The compositions make much use of musical instruments, voice and natural sound as their source materials and something less of "pure" electronic sound. There is a tendency to work with particular sound types in any given work, less of the kitchen sink, everything together sort of collages or the bleep-and-bloop scatter sounds of the high modern era.

The music tends to use the natural sounds in varying degrees of electronic processing, so that often enough one recognizes the source sounds for what they are along with their processed variants. There can be ambiance, orchestral densities or chamber intimacies.

The anthology does not introduce much in the way of the noise-oriented composers. The works represented here tend to have pitch as a constant, with unpitched, noisier elements present at times but never thoroughgoingly out-front in the extreme way of some of the more ascerbic, astringent-oriented practitioners out there these days. Daniel Blinkhorn perhaps is the exception, but his "Anthozoa" has lots of pitched implications and does not jar us with the more noisy sorts of noise of the fringe.

For all that these are not representing the extreme avant electronic composers so much as those who work in the new music middle-ground. Of course that is fine. The resultant mix of works segues well. It all gives you a vivid and rewarding listen to some accomplished sound poets who show us part of the state-of-the-art in Electronic Music today.

What else that is not covered here is the increasing growth of live electronic music. No matter, since that is something that has over time formed an almost a separate substyle and a single volume of an anthology cannot properly cover all that as well. So perhaps it is best to leave that aside for another anthology in future. As it is there is a wealth of musical sounds here to digest, all representing an evolution of the "classic" electronic studio work.

It is an adventure in new sounds, varied, contemporary and well-wrought regardless of the composer and work represented. Recommended!