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Friday, December 2, 2016

Vincent D'Indy, Symphony No. 2, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jean-Luc Tingaud

If you had to put a very short list of composers responsible for the French modern school in chronological order it might appropriately read Franck-D'Indy-Debussy-Ravel-Messiaen. Some might have trouble with the fact that Faure, Milhaud, and Poulenc were missing, or Boulez, or any number of others, but the main idea is that Vincent D'Indy (1851-1931) was as important to the modern French School's post-late-romantic beginnings as anyone, yet his music does not bask in the sunlight of continual performances and recordings around the world.

But, no fear. Naxos has released a representative assortment of D'Indy orchestral works headed by his Symphony No. 2 (8.573522). Jean-Luc Tingaud conducts the Royal National Orchestra in a set of dynamic, very serviceable readings that bring out the orchestrational excellence of the works and provide a clear roadmap through the thickets and twists of D'Indy's mature musical mind.

The Symphony (1902-03) at first might not strike one as revolutionary in its orchestral language, but close listening brings out the contrasts between folkish themes and proto-impressionist, dappled pictorial orchestration. For that matter Wagner's forest music from "Siegfried" was as much pre-impressionist as this D'Indy music could be, but then D'Indy established a French precedent that those that came after could identify as a possible national-modernist trait.

What matters now is that his music as heard in the Symphony, his melancholy "Souvenirs" (1906), the somewhat exotic "Istar" (1896), and the Prelude to his opera "Fervaal" (1889-95) offers us a snapshot in time of  what was progressive music. If we listen with open ears, we can hear something of what came after but also appreciate D'Indy as fully integral, a fully convincing musical personality in his own right.

So this is a nice volume to hear and listen closely to, well done and filled with D'Indy's special music. Give it a hearing!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sergei Bortkiewicz, Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12, Alfonso Soldano

The 20th Century was a high-water mark for classical music, with the recorded medium greatly expanding our ability to hear a great number of works by composers we might otherwise never have had a chance to experience. That situation continues in our present-day world. And we continue to uncover composers and works that have generally been unavailable to us previously.

Today we have an example in the music of Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), whose piano pieces are nicely represented in Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12 (Divine Art 25142). Alfonso Soldano authoritatively mans the piano chair for a full program of solo works that cover the period of 1908 to 1946.

Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukraine, trained for a musical career in St. Petersburg and Leipzig, settled in Berlin. During WWI he was deported and lived again in Russia. The Revolution and WWII found him again fleeing his various homes until the end of the war allowed him to settle one last time in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1952.

Perhaps these continued dislocations can explain why his music has been all-but-forgotten today. That and a rather stubborn will to remain within a late romantic style.  Today we care less that someone did not follow the trends and fashions of his or her times, and the music sounds surprisingly fresh, somewhere between Rachmaninov and early Scriabin, yet continuously original in its thematic-melodic creativity. So the end result sounds not so much derivative as an integral voice, another pianistic force within the style-set.

Soldano makes a convincing case for these works, with virtuoso dramatics, sparkle, shimmer and dash.

I find in Bortkeiwicz as presented here a real discovery, not in some history-changing sense but in the quality and originality of the music. Bravo!  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ross Harris, Symphony No. 5, Violin Concerto

New Zealand's Ross Harris (b. 1945) is a happy surprise of a composer for me. The Naxos (8.573532) CD at hand gives us poetic readings of his Violin Concerto  and his Symphony No. 5, two expressionistic gems handled beautifully by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under Gary Walker for the former and Eckehard Stier for the latter. Ilya Gringolts sounds inspired in the solo violin role and mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell is glowingly moody in the solo vocal part of the Symphony.

Harris adroitly negotiates the terrain between tonality and atonality in both works. The Violin Concerto (2010) gives the soloist lyrical-mysterioso passages alternating with a bracing turbulence and the orchestra follows and expands the moods in ways that remind favorably of Berg's Concerto and its depth without in anyway mimicking it.

The Symphony No. 5 (2013) sets three poems of Panni Palasti that recall her immersion in wartime Budapest during the Nazi siege there during WWII. Opening and closing adagios of austerely striking beauty frame directly communicating settings of the poems, which in turn are set off by two vividly depictive scherzos that portray wartime violence and horror.

Harris is a composer of substantial orchestral nuance and freshly thematic substance. The two works paired in this release enjoy dramatically moving and crisp readings that set a high benchmark.

Harris is a modernist of real stature! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Steve Reich, The ECM Recordings, 3-CD Set

The three albums recorded by Steve Reich for ECM beginning in 1978 can be said without exaggeration to have changed the face of modern music for good and all. Terry Riley's "In C" was a first masterpiece of the so-called minimalism in the late '60s. Reich had established himself as a major member of this school with the phase electronics compositions "Ain't Gonna Rain" and "Come Out," then began his gradual climb to instrumental profundity with such works as "Four Organs." By the time he had completed and recorded "Drumming" for DGG he had shown us all how via sound color and phasing and a kind of neo-African ethos he could create long works that held interest with exhilarating forms-in-motion as unprecedented as they were brilliant.

All this sets the stage for Reich's extraordinarily fruitful involvement with the ECM label. To honor Reich's 80th birthday year the three albums he made for ECM: The ECM Recordings  (ECM New Series 2540-42), are available now as a special three-CD box set that includes an illuminating 43-page booklet with the original liners and a fine retrospective essay by Paul Griffiths.

The first album for the label contained the landmark extended work "Music for 18 Musicians." It marked a breakthrough for Reich and for minimalism as well. Here was a doubled-sided, full length work that took Reich's neo-African, pan-world idea of extended rhythmic-melodic form and developed it with a sectional approach to interrelated, pulsating thematic counterpoint. The part writing used extremely inventive melo-rhythmic cells, each with intrinsic interest that made their repetition seem desirable and as a shifting interlocking whole gave the listener a full-dimensional panorama of driving lyricism.

Like Riley's "In C" the motifs sounded especially well together. Reich sequenced the whole to proceed to ever-altering motival combinatory stations, some in a line of logical-affective development and others marking the beginning of shifted new beginning points.

He created new form out of modulating harmonic clouds hovering over foundational pedals in conjunction with urgently dynamic rhythmic sophistications, varying ensemble colors and melodic brilliance. Virtually anyone (like myself) who had been following minimalism to that point recognized and embraced the music as a fully satisfying way to proceed. Nothing was quite the same afterwards.

Indeed the album, so the liners tell us, sold a brisk 100,000 copies, unheard of for such music at that point. And it established Reich for good as a major composer of our times, truly.

The two albums that followed over the next several years on ECM continued along the lines of the brilliant first one. Octet - Music for a Large Ensemble - Violin Phase redid one of Reich's most compelling "phase" period works with Shem Guibbory holding forth spectacularly on multiple overdubbed violins. The other two works continued where "18" left off, crafting further period-oriented ensemble fireworks. For whatever reason, "Music for a Large Ensemble" has never been recorded again to date, and that makes this volume that much more essential.

The third record, Tehillim, gave us Jewish liturgical minimal music as striking for its vocal writing as "18" was for its ensemble instrumental inventions.

A vocal quartet engages in some of the most moving contrapuntal writing of our era, and a large ensemble reinforces and expands what they are doing for a music where repetition is utilized with through composed and song structured form for yet another kind of sound, yet another aspect of the Reich approach, equally brilliant and memorable.

Of course there have been many great Reich works following this ECM period, but surely these three albums set the pace for all that came after. The performances have never been topped, though there have been some excellent versions of much of this music in the years that have followed. But on all counts, this set is essential.  If you don't know so-called minimalism very well, get this set; if you don't know Reich well, get this; and anyone else who might not have the music...just get this!

Essential, period. And an essential period.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Gene Pritsker, Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death

With to date more than 580 compositions completed, Gene Pritsker can certainly be said to be prolific. And yet none of the works I have had the pleasure to have heard sound formulaic or hasty. Quite the contrary. His music is new in the most important sense, filled with a contemporary, dynamic ethos and a meaningful synthesis of new music classical per se, a strain of neo-classical at times, plus the pronounced and creative influence of rock, jazz, soul and rap, depending upon the work at hand.

I've covered quite few of his releases on these and related blog pages. Today I am back with another goodie, Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death, The Chamber Music of Gene Pritsker (Composers Concordance 0037).

The album culls together eight distinguished short-to-somewhat-longer works in ever-varying configurations: solo violin, solo cello, bass clarinet and percussion, piano and drums, violin and cello, flute, clarinet and piano, and bass clarinet and electric guitar.

In a way anything goes here but it goes in ways that stand out as fully Pritskeresque--finely constructed pieces with idiomatic part writing, stylistic multiplicity, rhythmic vitality and a recognizable Pritsker wholeness. Perhaps only Zappa before him has combined so much and so selectively, yet with such individual personality.

We never feel, though, that we are looking back, as much as we are moving forward. Gene Pritsker is a composer of our times, and undeniably one of the most original, daring and satisfying.

This chamber volume reminds us of that forcefully. Hear this and hear where we are now, one place at least!

Very recommended.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Max Reger, String Chamber Music

The world of Max Reger (1873-1916) is essentially multistylistic, which might explain why his music has gotten less attention in the years after his death. If one looks at the succession of styles as a kind of unilineal evolution on a line of progression to the most advanced and modern, as many did in the height of the first modern era per se, Reger does not easily fit. In his vast output, you can find works with a very chromatic approach, proto-modern, if you will. But then there are works which are more late romantic in their overall feel. Then there are works that look backward to Bach, especially in some of the unaccompanied string works, and/or have other neo-baroque elements. Finally these traits can and do overlap in any given work. Not everything is pure anything.

In the age we live in now there are many composers that take a multifold approach. We no longer demand that purity of intent that was so important in ages passed. So perhaps this is Max Reger's time? Why not?

We can feel that multiplicity of Reger's musical view quite nicely in the three-CD set String Chamber Music (Verstan VKIK 1617). One volume each is devoted to works for violin (featuring Erich Hobarth), viola (featuring Tatjana Masurenko) and cello (with Peter Bruns).

Each volume features a goodly assortment of works--for the instrument unaccompanied, with piano, or in small groupings of strings. As an added bonus the cello volume includes several works by Julius Klengel, a cellist and close associate of Reger. They enhance the program.

The soloists are excellent, as are their collaborators. A close listen to the contents of this boxed set will open up the string-oriented chamber worlds of Reger and give you a bird's-eye view of the best of his output in this realm.

It is music to savor, showing a restless beauty and a rather exceptional musical mind at work.

It is a great introduction to chamber Reger. I am very glad to have it and I think you will be, too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Yuki Numata Resnick, For Ko

Programs that pit one or more of Bach's suites for solo strings with modern works that assimilate or forward Bach's ideas or influence into today are not uncommon.   I've covered a few on these pages. Enter Yuki Numata Resnick and her For Ko (Innova 951). In essence it is Resnick's continuation of what she has been  doing in concerts since 2007.

The combination of Bach solo and related modern works takes form here via a fine performance of Bach's "Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor" interspersed with modern works by Caleb Burnhans ("Remembrance"), Clara Iannotta ("Dead Wasps in the Jam-Jar"), Matt Marks ("Trunket's Saraband"), and Andrew Greenwald ("Bouree").

The contemporary works play upon the physical-experiential presence of Bach's work against contrasting note and sound colors in abstractio to less radical transformations and even a short-story recitation interspersed with violin interjections related to Bach ("Trunket's Saraband").

Resnick's dedicated, resonant reading of Bach is quite beautiful. The contemporary sojourns and their varying degrees of distance from the Partita serve to situate the music both in the present and in the past.

It is a well-played and provocative resituating of Bach. A few plays will gradually draw you into an enchanted world that spans the centuries.

Very recommended.