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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Julia Wolfe, Anthracite Fields

Minimalism today. Are there as many versions as there are composers? Possibly. It is still one of the principal modern idioms in classical music, of course, but it is for many a different thing than it was during its classically hypnotic phase of the '70s and early '80s. Take Julia Wolfe. Take her Pulitzer Prize winning composition Anthracite Fields (Cantaloupe 21111), enjoying its world premiere recording by the Bang On A Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under Julian Wachner.

Julia grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania not far from a once thriving anthracite coal mining district, which had its peak at the turn of last century. Anthracite Fields is a kind of homage to the miners and their difficult and dangerous toils. In five thematic movements the chamber ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars joins with the Trinity Wall Street Choir for a textual thematic unity. The movements are "Foundations," "Breaker Boys," "Speech," "Flowers," and "Appliances." The chamber group consists of cello, bass, keyboards, drums, guitar and clarinets, two of the instrumentalist adding their vocals. They straddle classical and rock modes, mostly more or less straightforward minimalism for the bulk of the music.

Like her "Steel Hammer" (reviewed on these pages; see search box) Wolfe utilizes text phrases that form the centerpiece of meaning for each movement. So for example the names of miners who were on the accident index during peak years are sung out in mostly unison in a measured chant-like periodicity. For its repetitive core the names are limited to those who had the first name "John." The unison has then a counter-melody that enters in about halfway through. "Breaker Boys" deals with the young workers who removed debris from the output of the coal-bearing shutes, a physically painful task. "Mickey Pick Slate" and other children's game rhymes form the core texts. "Speech" makes use of a speech made by the United Mine Worker's President John L. Lewis about the hard lives of sacrifice made by the workers so that Americans could live comfortably. The remaining two movements proceed in similar fashion. In the repetition of phases from the various textual sources a minimalist matrix is built up for each movement.

On a meaning level, all of this is very moving. There is a deliberate banality to the music itself, in its use of unisons, thirds and simple diatonic phrases. Most of them have little in the way of musical interest and the effect is to focus the listener on the texts and create a simple consonance that has life mostly through rhythmic treatment. The repetition does not mesmerize. It repeats.

I appreciate this work for its commitment and often find parts invigorating. At other times I will admit to you that there is a deliberate tedium that is, well, tedious. I cannot blame Julia Wolfe for the intervalic elementalness of the music. That is her choice. It must appeal to a wide number of people because of the simplicity, but after a time and with repeated hearings I find myself wishing for a little less sing-song. Of course if sing-song is her aim, she succeeds! One could argue that the banal repetition corresponds to the repetitive labor, and that's fine. For that it can be easily appreciated and grasped on first hearing by the least musical among us; but repeated hearings do not yield a great deal of heightening, not for me. It stays where it was and does not budge.

I realize that this is my problem and that the work evokes the tragedy of this way of life quite well, but at least half of the music content I do not engage with readily. And the repetition seems not entirely chant-like, which would be fine, but at times too darned banal to interest me. That banal simplicity may appeal, I grant it, just not as much to me.

If it won the Pulitzer Prize this year. There are obviously those who feel that it is worthy. I congratulate Ms. Wolfe for a very dramatic statement. And I generally like her music. This one is very good to hear, but much of it seems in the end uninteresting to me. You may feel differently. Sorry.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sibelius, Swanwhite -- Complete Incidental Music, etc., Leif Segerstam, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra

The uniqueness, almost stubborn uniqueness of composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is something we can perhaps marvel at today. He was determined to go his own way during his most productive years, for a large potion of the 20th century. He produced seven symphonies, a violin concerto, and tone poems, which have gained a sort of immortality from his own time through to the present. He was the voice of Finland, not quite neo-romantic and not modern with the stylistic traits we generally identify under that name, totally himself yet in a very Finnish sense, without trying to put too fine a point on it.

But not all of his music is well known. Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra have been devoting time and care to recording some of the lesser-known orchestral works, principally incidental music, in a series of releases for Naxos. I covered one a short while ago (use search box above to find that) and now another: Swanwhite -- Complete Incidental Music and others (Naxos 8.573341).

The album devotes much of its time to "Swanwhite" (1908) and "Odlan (The Lizard)" (1909), each running nearly a half-hour. Then there are the brief music and narrative sequences "A Lonely Ski Trail" (1948) and "The Countess' Portrait" (1905).

We get some very attractive tone painting from the early stages of his career for the most part. The influence of Grieg can sometimes be discerned, otherwise this is proto-Sibelius that speaks on its own terms. He most certainly shows his brilliant orchestrational genius in embryo here. And the music sings out dramatically and attractively.

The performances are quite good, sensitive to the sweep of Sibelius's grand natural gestures. The music may not be quite at the high point of mature Sibelius, so perhaps this is not the place for the listener to start with the composer if one does not already know him. But for those convinced Sibeliphiles it is all very nice to hear, something you will want to have.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Giya Kancheli, Chiaroscuro, Kremer, Kopatchinskaja, Kremerata Baltica

Georgian composer Giya Kancheli is 80. In part to celebrate that and the intrinsic value of the music itself, Kremerata Baltica with Gidon Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja have recorded two very appealing works released under the title Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442).

They are tonal, rhapsodic, introspective works that have their own life in a post-modern landscape. The title work "Chiaroscuro" with Gidon Kremer as violin soloist, and "Twilight" for Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, have a sprawling, somewhat mysteriously reflective aural landscaping with some genetic resemblance at first blush to the Barber "Adagio" and Berg's "Violin Concerto." That is only in mood, for the music is most definitely of our time, but also Georgian, hauntingly lambent, in the sense of softly bright, radiant, reflectively melancholy to my ears and at times unleashing a momentary turbulence.

Kramer, Kopatchinskaja and the Kremerata Baltica sound wonderfully well with this music. They fully capture the mood with the help of the meticulously soundstaged ECM audio.

There is a glowing yet tender quality to the music that reflects the sensibilities of our times somehow, yet does so in strikingly original terms. The minor sonance unravels with a kind of logical inevitably, a sweetly taking stock. And in the end you are moved, ravished and taken away by the music's dramatic resolve.

I cannot but recommend it heartily. It enthralls and envelopes the listener in adagio dreams. It will doubtless appeal to many as it does to me. Bravo!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gyorgy Kurtag, Kafka Fragments, Caroline Melzer, Nurit Stark

Franz Kafka created an alternate world in his writings that was like no other, parallel to the reality he lived within and in many ways a displacement of the disconnects and disregards we all can be subject to in a modern nation-state world. It was virtually hyper-real and so vividly colored by his imaginative scenarios that we see in modern life something we have perhaps been trying not to notice, but can be of course very much there.

Composer Gyorgy Kurtag has taken a series of textual extracts from Kafka's diaries, letters and unpublished stories and made a long song cycle of them for soprano and violin, Kafka Fragments (1985-87) (BIS 2175).

It is a stark landscape musically and textually that Kurtag sets for voice and violin alone. The music parallels the texts with moments of agitated expression, a ruminative bleakness and many shades in between. The violin part is filled with double stops and a modernity that gives the music at times echoes in familial relationship to Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" in its folk-fiddling avantness. But here the "fiddler" and the vocalist are very much alone, fitting to Kafka's uncanny point of view and his unrelenting probing of existence, demanding answers that are not forthcoming.

The 40 separate fragments are generally quite short, a minute or two for each with a few running longer, six or seven minutes. Each is a word-song picture that sets its mood and then is gone.

Soprano Caroline Melzer and violinist Nurit Stark immerse themselves in the score with an explosive expressiveness and a contrasting reflectivity that seem just right for this music. It is all very much in a modern post-serialist mode, brittle near-lyricism countered by a hard expressivity not untypical of Kurtag in this period.

The music stands on its own as something very much unto itself. There is nothing quite like this out there. That in itself is saying a great deal. It is an unforgettable work, a fitting analog of the Kafka sensibility set in tone.

It demands your undivided attention and rewards with stunning, uncompromising exploratory probings. There is a seriousness of purpose here that is unrelenting and all the more memorable for it.

Modern aficionados, take note! Recommended strongly for the committed new music adept.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hummel, Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 36, 35 and 41 Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano

There are times when you need to take a break from the hurly-burly, to freshen the senses with something completely different yet familiar. That would seem to me a good time to put on the Hummel Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 36 "Linz", 35 "Haffner", and 41 "Jupiter" Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano (Naxos 8.572842). These of course are some of Mozart's most celebrated later works in a chamber setting, with his illustrious pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel doing the arranging.

The music appears in an exposed setting, displaying all its charms but pared down to the essentials. Hummel does the reframing with subtlety, using the piano as a fulcrum point as he well would have if the quartets were composed of his music, and nicely scoring the flute, violin and cello parts to make the music sing wonderfully well. There are some nice Hummel touches here and there that remind us he was moving in early romantic circles.

The parts contain plenty of brio--and a virtuoso side that brings elements into closer focus. The present recording features Uwe Grodd on flute, Friedemann Eichhorn on violin, Martin Hummel on cello and Richard Kruger on piano. They are zestily declamatory when called for, sweetly tender at other times, and in short give the parts an exuberant motility and inspired enthusiasm perfectly suited to the music.

Of course most anyone hearing these arrangements are intimately familiar with the Mozart symphonic originals and so can envision their micro-adaptation to the chamber ensemble with a sort of immediacy. The themes, the passagework, the perfection of the music is still there only there is an at times a Promethean triumph of quartet over the struggles of making this music truly breathe under new circumstances.

The result is pure delight, I suppose you could say. It is a full CD of real fulfillment. There is an earlier volume out with the same premise but of course different symphonies. Start with this one, though. Then if you need more there is that.

Exceptional fun!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Heinz Holliger, Machaut-Transkriptionen, Guillaume de Machaut

The modern music arena, like the modern visual arts scene, may frustrate you if you have one rigidly defined set of features that you apply like a grid over everything new you experience. Half the time or more, the music may evade your definition and yet be worthwhile and even important. You get more out of the explorations when you approach new music on its own terms, one work at a time. Only then may the various patterns emerge alongside one another, though of course everything is changing, mutating, going forward month-to-month.

Much commentary on the scene tends to freeze that ever-evolving whole in order to describe the situation on the ground at x point in time, but of course the natural way is that it continues to move forward. That is hard to put into words so long as there continues to be an opening up of the future that is the opposite of a one-style dominance. And we are most definitely in a very creative, generative period in the times in which we live.

The new recording by Heinz Holliger is nicely symptomatic of a branch of the process of contemporization right now. Machaut-Transkriptionen (ECM New Series 2224) makes use of the famed Hilliard Ensemble vocalists and three violas to resituate a cycle of works by 14th century early music master Giullaume de Machaut.

Beginning with literal transcriptions of the Machaut works, Holliger gradually transforms them with ever-increasing interjections of modern elements, dissonance, extended playing techniques (harmonics, for example), and various displacements.

This is a further example of the old-in-the-new, the search for convergences of early and modern musics that Stravinsky did with Gesualdo, Lukas Foss and his "Baroque Variations" exemplified in the '60s for a later period of early music, then Penderecki reaffirmed in very different ways in his vocal works beginning with his early-mid period. More recently of course Arvo Part came on the scene with a distinct style that contained some definitive transformations. He has rightfully been made much of in the late-20th century through to today. But the process by no means ends at Part. It continues on and Holliger is among the prime movers as we hear on this album.

Holliger's refiguration of Machaut takes the four vocalists and three violists increasingly across time from early to late, at the same time interjecting his own musical vision yet situating it within a world first sourced out of Machaut's subtle part-writing and periodistic spatiality.

The music is impeccably performed, captured beautifully and has a dramatically transformative trajectory that gives us a sonic momentum as contentful as it is moving. It is first-rate early-to-modern music and a great example of why Holliger occupies a special niche as a present-day innovator.

Hear this and be a part of the contemporary developments going on out there. Very recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Eleanor Cory, Things Are, String Quartet No. 3, etc.

Eleanor Cory (b 1943) is another one of those composers you may know something of or may have missed altogether. Her music has been performed widely but her recordings have not circulated quite as much. She has a way about her, as can be heard in her recent six-work anthology Things Are, String Quartet No. 3 [etc.] (Naxos 8.559784). All are world premiere recordings in a chamber context.

Her music is a varying mix of tonal, atonal and modal, a constellation of contemporary stances that vary with the requirement of a piece. The results are well put-together, individual, sometimes lyrically expressive and largely modern in the classic sense.

The anthology is a good sampling of works written between 1973 and 2012.

The "Violin Sonata No. 1" is the latest work and shows her expressively rhapsodic-modern side with memorably active passage work that projects forward in ways quite appealing.

The "String Quartet No. 3" (2009) is filled with motivic road signs that guide the listener through the musical terrain with articulate grace. "Sweetly melancholic" is how the work is described in the liners and well so. "Things Are" (2011) is for flute and piano, dedicated to Milton Babbitt. It has the rangy openness that Babbitt would have appreciated.

The "Celebration" (2008) for solo piano has contemporary virtuoso agitation/repose and a bit of a very modern jazz flavor to it. Stephen Gosling does the honors as soloist and shows the interpretative range so needed for this one to come across.

The performances are all first-rate. Eleanor Cory shows herself a composer of expressive smarts, dash and lyrical modernism, indeed a first-rank post-high modernist that has mastered a divergent harmonic-melodic way that covers much ground with a naturally assimilative yet individual approach that sounds effortless though of course a good deal of work has gone into these pieces.

Some chamber gems are here for you to appreciate. They hold together well with repeated listens and give us a stance that has a unified authenticity and a stylistic flourish that makes Cory a living modernist of high caliber. This is well worth your time!