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Monday, September 15, 2014

Hanns Eisler Edition, Ten CDs

Sometimes there are historical reasons behind the obscure posterity of a composer. Certainly that was true in the case of Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), a substantially prolific, extraordinarily gifted Austrian composer, a Jew who throughout his life maintained an unswerving allegiance to left-wing politics. He studied with Schoenberg and was a most promising force in the contemporary new music scene in the Middle Europe of the pre-Nazi era. He began his career in Vienna, moved to Berlin in 1925, and like Kurt Weill, incorporated cabaret and pop elements into his music. Like Weill also he collaborated with poet-lyricist-playwright Bertolt Brecht, in Eisler's case primarily via songs and incidental music to Brechtian theater works.

With the rise of the Nazis Eisler's music was banned along with many others and he left Germany abruptly, then made various stops in Europe before coming to the US to teach at the New School in 1938. He made the treck to Hollywood in 1942, wrote scores for movies which brought him some acclaim and several Academy Award nominations. His left-wing affiliations got him in trouble in 1947, when Nixon and the HUA put him before their tribunal. He was deported and eventually spent his last years in East Berlin, where he was accepted but even then subjected to the strictures of Social Realism which prevailed during the Stalin era.

So there are reasons why Eisler's music is not well known today. Indeed some of his music has strong agit-prop qualities not likely to endear him to mainstream concert goers. Yet we manage to celebrate Weill's early theatre music nonetheless, which has strong political content inherent in Brecht's librettos.

Recordings of his music have been available here and there in the post-modern era, but nothing of the scope and breadth of the newly released Hanns Eisler Edition (Brilliant Classics 9430) a comprehensive ten-CD retrospective covering the full breath of his output. The lyrics to the vocal music are not included, but you can download them from the Brilliant site.

What we have in this set is an impressive set of recordings, many made in East Germany, nearly all very good performances. It is not the complete Eisler but it covers a great deal of his music: symphonic, chamber, songs, piano music, symphonic vocal and choral. Here and there the music is strictly agit-prop, especially some of the choral works, but never so much as to dominate.

As for the rest, it shows us a composer of exceptional talent. There are wide-eyed modernist works from his early years and even later, cabaret music that will remind pleasantly of Weill yet not reproduce him, some beautiful chamber works....There is no way to give detailed descriptions with a set of this magnitude.

I came away from listening to this all with a revelation that Eisler was a major composer whose politics kept him out of the Western rediscoveries and revivals that the music of many other Euro-exiles eventually enjoyed in later years.

Perhaps his time has come. Certainly the Brilliant set makes a case for his talent and abilities, and that at a very reasonable price. Not everything is brilliant, not surprisingly, yet there is genuine facility to be heard and appreciated throughout.

Anyone who values the historical modernists will find a good deal in this set to like. He may have been forgotten, but we can now easily get exposure to the music here and make up our minds. Recommended.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Julian Wachner, Symphony No. 1, Works for Orchestra and Voices

Over the centuries there have been many composers who spent a good deal of time conducting others' works and learning a great deal thereby on the specifics of orchestration and musical conception of the greats first-hand. Julian Wachner is a contemporary who has done that. He has especially done so in the context of sacred music, holding down a number of musical directorships/conducting positions at such institutions as the famous Trinity Church on Wall Street.

He comes to us today in the guise of a composer, and an excellent one he is. Specifically we have a three-CD set of his music, performed under his conductorship, in the Symphony No. 1: Incantations and Lamentations, Works for Orchestra and Voices (Musica Omnia 0604 3-CDs).

The set contains so much that is worthwhile that trying to discuss each work might get a bit tedious. Suffice to say that the 13 works proffered in the set cover a good deal of time, from the 1989 "Psalm Cycle I" to the 2014 "Blue, Red and Green". In the process the set covers a developmental traversal of musical space as well. A good bit of it is sacred music, most is very contemporary in tone, though a few channel early church music styles to their own end. Wachner has an excellent knack of getting stirring sounds from voices, both soloists and choirs. He also has mastered orchestration so that the instrumental parts work together for a lucid transparency or a rousing mass of varied voices.

Wachner has a pronounced rhythmic sensibility and puts it to good use in movements that have shifting meters and a dynamic thrust to them. At some point you occasionally detect a Bernstein influence (the Mass sometimes comes to mind as a precursor), other times some of the voicings and counterpoints of later Reich also seem to be launching points, still other moments there is a jazziness to it all. But then there are the tender and mysterium aspects, too. None of it sounds derivative. It does seem an integral part of a developed grand tradition of sacred music, with Wachner taking his place in a potential pantheon. But time will be the judge of that.

In the meantime we have this set to appreciate. The works are substantial, the performances lucid and bold in outline (listen for example to the Trinity Choirs) and the sound well-staged, spectacular.

Anyone who wants to know what's good out there in American modern sacred music must hear this. If that is not your specialization you will still be well-served by this set. The music comes from a composer who needs to be attended to, for music that holds its own in a modern contemporary tonal mode.

Very recommended.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Moritz Moszkowski, Complete Music for Four Hands, Domenico Monaco, Michele Solimande

If you are well familiar with composer Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), German-Jewish composer of Polish descent, you have a leg up on things. I believe I have a piano concerto of his somewhere in my stacks of vinyl, otherwise he was an unknown quantity when I opted to review his Complete Music for Four Hands (Brilliant Classics 94835, 3-CDs). He was admired by Paderewski, more well known in his day perhaps than ours, but that latter of course says nothing against his music.

The box set of three CDs gives you everything he composed for piano four hands, and that's a good deal of music. Domenico Monaco and Michele Solimando render the music with great charm and spirit, which is exactly what the music needs. We have to remember back to a time when of course there were no radios, televisions, music audio players of whatever stripe. Most people had the parlor piano installed in their residences, certainly those musically inclined. Piano music that was simple enough to be played by the amateur could sell as sheet music to the profit of composer and publishing house, especially if the music caught on with the public. If your house had more than one accomplished pianist, music for piano four hands could give the family some fine entertainment.

These Moszkowski works seem designed and well-suited for such musical evenings. The parts are not too difficult for the amateur, yet they yield some very full pianistic music with a large sound and some very memorable themes. Some of the waltzes and mazurkas are regularly ordered so that dancing no doubt was also possible.

Before you say to yourself, "sounds like a banal sort of waste of time" consider that these pieces are very well-constructed, have some excellent thematic memorability, and have in addition some of Polish and even (latent?) Jewish folk qualities--and other attractions that make them hard not to appreciate.

Moszkowski was no hack, nor did he engage in the sentimentality that makes some parlor piano music from the era unbearable. Not everything is simplissimo, either. There are at times extension of Chopinesque poeticism, regularized without much rubato to make a four-handed presentation fairly straightforward.

I found the music delightful, more than I had expected in fact. They transcend time and place and speak to us. The romanticism is contained in classical structure and folk effusion, so the music does not sound dated.

Plus this box set is at a very decent price. An evergreen forgotten is still an evergreen. This music remains fresh and lively after all the years, and the performances are all what one would hope for.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Grego Applegate Edwards Talks About the First Album, "Travels in Tyme"

Since I do these music blogs and since I have just released my first album, Travels in Tyme (Ruby Flower Records 007), and moreover, since there is something I'd like to convey about that music and for the moment I doubt that an interview will be happening in the major media, I thought I'd interview myself (and of course ask some very tough questions) by way of talking a little about what I am trying to do. I beg your forbearance...

SELF: So what, do you think you are special or something, coming out with an album of your own at this point? What are you doing?

GREGO: Special? Anybody who is honest thinks they are special, because like it or not they must live a lifetime inside themselves, and to do so you must take a certain amount of care in order to keep surviving. So the first thing I do when I wake up every morning is take a little care that both feet are placed squarely on the floor before I stand. Everybody does that sort of thing. It is the special quality of existing that makes them do it. But otherwise? I have been given the opportunity in my life to express myself and I have taken some care there, too, that it be somehow worth doing. The hearing of the music I have made is up to others. That either follows or does not by subsequent events. So, really no, not special so much. Just here and creating out of my life whatever may come.

SELF: OK, so you care. Tell us why we should care about this album?

GREGO: You shouldn't. Not automatically. There is so much music out there, who can afford to care about it all without somehow losing it? There's no good reason on the surface of things why you should care. It isn't going to matter at this very moment, to you at least, whether you hear this album through or not, of course.

SELF: Well that's all well and good. We should not care, you tell us. So why are you here? Come on, you know you want people to listen and if possible to get something from your music, don't you?

GREGO: Alright, yes. But not in some "put on the CD and life will be groovy" sort of way. It's not going to make your life groovy. I can't see how any one album will do that right now. Though when I was younger some albums really DID change my life. But with my album that would be asking too much. The first time you hear it you may hate it, not understand it, or maybe you will find it interesting. That's in part a matter of who YOU are as much as what the music does. But sure I want people to like it.

SELF: So then what sort of person do you think will respond to the music?

GREGO: There's no one answer. I can only say that the music reflects at least in part three musics that have most influenced me in my years of listening, thinking, playing and writing. One part is the electricity of rock as explored in the golden years of early Hendrix and beyond. There is some of that juice to be heard in these pieces. Another is the intensity of so-called free or avant jazz. Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Ayler, Elvin Jones, all have had a big effect on music as I hear it. But then the entire jazz tradition is something inside me and it fills me with great respect, though this music doesn't channel the tradition really. Others do that, better than I could. Still, I hope there's some of the elation and power of that music, though this music is not about long solos, chops, or much in the way of the individuality of any one instrument. It's more an ensemble music. The third area involves modern new music, from the sound advances made in the last century by composers such as Cage, Varese, Ives, Stockhausen and the kind of trance elements the best minimalists have brought to us--I mean Reich, Riley and such. Well now as I think of it, there is a fourth element--that of world music that has influenced me too, especially the music of Africa and South Asia, though this isn't a direct thing. Just part of my musical being when sounds go through my head. I sometimes get that, a hint of it, in the music and my whole idea of rhythm has been shot through and through with those traditions, which you could probably say of any serious drummers out there. It's a common heritage and so it's in the back of anybody's head that came up learning to drum.

SELF: OK so some four different stylistic areas have gone into the music. But what about where we started, that a certain kind of person, or kinds, would most likely respond to the music?

GREGO: I guess anybody who has cast a wide ear-net of listening over the years, who has delved in one or more of these areas in some depth might be likely to respond to the music. Not to sound pretentious, to claim I am this or I am that. Just that my music partakes of some of those essences. But all more or less directed in a particular way of looking at "time" in music.

SELF: What do you mean, like different meters, Brubeck and Time Out or something like that?

GREGO: Well I heard Brubeck's time albums growing up. "Take Five" was an AM radio hit, which is hard to imagine today. Many of my generation got exposed to odd meters through some of that. But really Brubeck only did that for a while; he had other things that made him interesting, too. The classic Coltrane Quartet did things with polyrhythms and polymeters that took it further. And really that influenced me more. And so also in my musical training and practice meters have been important and in part I address that in my music. But there is something else as well. Rhythm with a big "R". What is it really? It is a series of occurrences within linear time, of sounds and silences. Africa and South Asia developed the most sophisticated rhythmic senses in their musical cultures, and that's one thing. John Cage made us very aware of all sound existing inside and outside us as potentially significant. And the fact is the sounds of humanity, nature, the universe in motion can go pretty far along in terms of the ratios of the sounds and their coincidence. So if you listen to a bunch of crickets in a natural setting, for example, you'd be hard pressed to express the whole of it in simple musical notation. And yet theoretically there is a ratio-specific complex, a rhythmic whole to be grasped. Imagine that the entire universe could be conceived of as built on one tempo, with everything branching out as differential ratios against that?

Not that there is one tempo, that we know of, but suppose there was. Absolutely every sound occurring in the universe could be related to all the others in terms of ratios--and those ratios would soon become too complex to hear perhaps, it might turn to a kind of aural mud, yet there would be always a connection you could put together in your mind's ear so to speak, a connection of relations of one pulse with another. And those ratios would soon get far more complex than is typical of music as we hear it.

SELF: So what are you driving at, then?

GREGO: Hold on and I will try and bring this back to where we are here. Before I was aware of Cage or had any sophisticated understanding of music, as a kid, I nevertheless was a keen listener to the sounds in my world as I grew up. I believe this is natural, especially for anyone with a musical proclivity, which I definitely had early-on. Anyway crickets, katydids, clocks, raindrop patterns as they fell against a window or onto the roof, multiple bells ringing at different velocities, I heard those things growing up and it fascinated me.

At some point by the time I was around ten I guess I had two old farmer's wind-up alarm clocks I found that I used to keep going. They would tick at different tempos so that sometimes they locked together but other times they became farther and farther apart until they began to converge again. I thought that was cool.

A couple of decades ago I was jamming with some friends and one of them brought a cheap Casio keyboard that could sample. Once you sampled something you could press different notes on the keyboard and each would play back the sample at a different velocity and pitch--the high notes giving you faster velocities than the low, in a gradated way. If you pressed a number of keys down it would give you that same convergence and divergence that the two alarm clocks did, only there were more velocities involved so there were different stages of convergence.

SELF: So what does that have to do with the music on Travels in Tyme? Anything?

GREGO: Yes. When I set up my multitrack recording studio some years ago I was in the middle of working on some music, and the Casio, the alarm clocks, the bells, the crickets and their synchrony and dis-synchrony came back to me. What if I wrote some musical pieces that tried to capture that feeling? I started to sketch out some musical motifs, some rhythmic entrances and such that might be utilized to create that dynamic unfolding. I started laying down different tempoed click tracks for each channel on my recorder, then listening back to see how the clicks worked together. After a while I had a set of pieces in my head that could work with different simultaneous times, different meters, with varying degrees of freedom and precision. That was the basis for the Travels in Tyme pieces that you can hear in finished form now. It took many hours to compile all the tracks, one at a time, but the result was something I thought interesting...

SELF: But all the pieces don't have that as far as I can hear...

GREGO: In some cases I grouped a bunch of instruments at a common tempo and came up with some through composed melodic phrases that would contrast with the open time zones, to make it a little more varied and I hope interesting, so it's not all bleeps and bloops coming together and scattering.

SELF: OK. Why do you play all the instruments yourself?

GREGO: I did that so I could fool around with the attacks and sounds in a kind of experimental way and not waste people's time if I tried things that didn't work. Plus I had no resources to pay anybody to play the music then (or now, for that matter). It was a shot in the dark, really, too. I wanted to be able to play with the structures and see what worked.

SELF: And so you ended up with an album of music that sometimes sounds free, sometimes has a rock edge, and sometimes has a new music feel to it. Was that on purpose?

GREGO: Not expressly. I just let myself flow and see what came up. As it happens the various influences came though in ways that I could predict, and sometimes in ways that surprised me.

SELF: And so that's what we end up with here?

GREGO: Yes. I hope those who listen to the album will experience it as a whole, because each section follows out of the others. In the future I hope to do something further in real time, with a live orchestra or big band.

It's not a "pick the hit" sort of thing, as an MP3 for your i-pod. It may take a little patience to get with the music, but I hope some people will give it a chance. I thank folks in advance for listening. By the way, to my creditors, if you are reading this it is not about making money. I doubt that this first album will net me more than a pittance. It is being released for the sake of the sounds, not to gain an income from it. So don't be expecting this to amount to more than a piece of change, and that in a long while. This is not music for money. It's music for the music.

SELF: Well thanks for the interview.

GREGO: No problem. It's the least I can do for my SELF.

SELF: Ouch! That was bad.... Oh, anyone curious about the album and/or who would like to buy a copy, go to

Moses Pergament, The Jewish Song (Den Judiska Sangen)

The European Jews who managed to survive the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust must have felt an extraordinary ambivalence. One does not simply return to normalcy, to everyday life in the wake of such momentous tragedy, such evil. This ambivalence was what composer Moses Pergament, of Finnish-Swedish Jewish heritage, must have felt.

He had shown a remarkable aptitude for music in youth, studied it in St. Petersburg for four years beginning in 1908, and settled in Stockholm in 1916, taking up as a music critic and composer and more-or-less settling permanently there, though he spent some time in Berlin and Paris studying conducting in the 1920s.

He composed The Jewish Song (Den Judiska Sang) (Caprice 21834) in the closing period of the war, 1944, based on the poetic texts of Ragnar Josephson. It is a choral symphony of imposing stature. Incredibly this recorded performance is the first and only one extant. The work has been neglected, forgotten in modern times until now, when we can hear it complete, in a major 1974 recording by the Royal Stockholm Orchestra, the Stockholm Philharmonic Choir and soloists under conductor James DePreist.

It is a sprawling work of great power, anguish, a lament for the six million Jews who perished under the reign of terror spread by the Third Reich during their existence. It is alternately hopeful, despairing, militant in its resistance, sure in its faith and yet struggling against the bleak, incredibly harrowing reality that had enveloped the world. In the end, resolution and determination, thanks that the nightmare had come to an end. It is serious music in tone, expectedly. Somber. Impassioned.

Musically there is a slightly discernible influence of later Mahler, especially of "Song of the Earth" (as the liners note) but this conjoined with Pergament's expressive individuality, which introduces something of his Jewish-Yiddish Euro-heritage with something of his Nordic locality, all transformed to his own dramatic sense.

There is much in the way of vivid turbulence to be heard in the 70-odd minutes of the performance, contrasting with passages of sad tenderness for the innocent. A sarcastic reference to "Deutschland Uber Alles" forms one of the very memorable moments of this monumental work, but there is much else to appreciate, to be moved by.

The performance has an authentic power to it. Everyone rises to the occasion, from soloists to choir to orchestra. It leaves us somewhat stunned. Or that's what it did to me. The rest may be silence, more than a moment's worth. DePriest and company have done us an enormous service by making the work available to us, and doing it so well.

You need to hear it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Karin Haussmann, Works for Ensemble, E-MEX Ensemble, Christoph Maria Wagner

German composer Karin Haussmann (b. 1962) has as her starting point the creation of sound in its new music essence. Works for Ensemble (Coviello Contemporary Deutschlandfunk COV 91410) gives us a nicely varied assortment of five of her recent works as played with detailed attention by the E-MEX Ensemble under Christoph Maria Wagner.

These new works have flow, much attention to timbres and spatial unfolding within a realm of high-modernist abstraction, but without especially showing a standard pointillistic influence via Darmstadt and the serialists. The compositions generally unfold theatrically and evocatively without having detailed literary analogs. Haussmann creates abstractions that convey meaning without relying heavily on extra-musical thematics, though often based on one or more coloristic, gestural or conditional principles as starting points. But make no mistake, there is nothing cold or clinical about them.

The opening work on the CD, "Two Movements for Piano and Ensemble" (2008) makes use of jagged figures in the piano while the ensemble has moments where it "breathes", sounds continuous figures in a kind of breath-like flow. In the second movement the ensemble moves away from responding to the piano and more to articulating varied forms of periodicity while the piano widens its role to a mysterious series of clusters and utterances, all metaphoric of how a balance wheel functions in a mechanical clock. The music has a magical quality.

"a fuoco lento" (2009) premiered at a culinary event, hence the literal meaning of the work's title, "at a low flame". Haussmann conceived of the work as initially limited like a kind of entree made of a few key elements, ingredients as it were. The note b-flat, the bowed and striking of metallic objects by the percussionist, both are are key elements that the composition works around.

The solo organ work "con flessibilita" concerns itself with the various sound resources, the various manuals and the two Venetian swells available to the organist. Haussmann successfully gives the organ a flexible tone-color quality which makes of the organ a more permeable, plastic color-wheel of sorts.

"Four Movements for Cello, Accordion and Ensemble" (2010-2011) works further with the ideas developed in "Two Movements". The sound capabilities of the cello and accordion were chosen to create contrasts that the ensemble reacts against. The soloists take on the role of "recoloring" the music through exerting influences, as the composer says, which brings the ensemble into a kind of timbre-oriented dialog. So we have clusters in the accordion, for example, versus sustained multiphonic tones in the cello, and so forth.

"Quartet" (2000) finishes off the program with trumpet, flute. cello and piano sounding, in the composers words, as a single instrument. Haussmann experimented with trumpeter Marco Blaauw in creating "disaltered chords", richly harmonic, rough multiphonics that tend to beat with variable periodicity. The quartet gives a four-instrument analog of the disaltered chordal sound.

All these various concepts put into play by the composer results in some striking music, high-modernist yet freshly concocted into striking sound color worlds that make the music particularly contemporary, of our time.

It is music that will be appreciated by the adventurous modernist. Time spent acclimating oneself to the new worlds of sound pay off with a very rewarding experience.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Andrzej Panufnik, Concertos, Symphonic Works Vol. 8

The centennial of Andrzej Panufnik's birthday (1914-1991) has brought us a spate of rather remarkable recordings, many covered here (type his name in the search box above for those). Today, another. This one is Volume 8 in the Deutschlandradio Kultur series of "Orchestral Works", namely a compendium of three Concertos (CPO 777 687-2).

All three are from his fully mature, later period, a Violin Concerto from 1971, Cello Concerto from 1991, and Piano Concerto from 1961/1972/1983. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin under Lukasz Borowicz sound fine indeed and give the music a characteristic flourish that seems right. The soloists rise to the occasion.

The Violin Concert was written originally for Yehudi Menuhin. Panufnik tried to emphasize spiritual and poetic possibilities rather than pyrotechnics, building long melody lines for the violin using simple intervallic relationships--basically the major and minor third of a triad in well-conceived permutations. The violin soars above the string orchestra throughout. The work has a somewhat moody character but brings to us a singularly singing quality well realized by soloist Alexander Sitkovetsky and the orchestra. It is in its own way a masterpiece, once of Panufnik's most appealing.

The Piano Concerto is more virtuoso-oriented, with poetic qualities, bravura and at times an almost jazzy immediacy, especially in the rousing, restlessly modulating perpetual motion of the final movement. Ewa Kuplec excels in the piano role, with great energy and poise. The first movement was newly composed in 1983, the rest thoroughly revised in 1972.

The Cello Concerto is the latest of the three works, written in 1991 with Rostropovich in mind, who gave the premier. The music is conceived as a sort of structural palindrome, though to the naked ear it all sounds through-composed. Raphael Wallfisch renders the solo cello part with grace and intensity.

So we have another volume in the series, one of the very best. The three works do much to convince us how Panufnik never flagged, went his own way, and lit up the musical world with his own brand of brilliance when all was right. These concertos are sterling examples of that and the performances leave nothing to be desired. Very recommended.