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Friday, January 30, 2015

Giacinto Scelsi, RITO, Ensemble Phoenix Basel

Italian avant composer Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) is primary known to us from the works of his second period of compositions, which began in 1952 and continued into his later years. In this period he rejected his earlier composition methods to concentrate on sound color, micro-intervals and reduced intervallic relations. His chamber and vocal works of this period are the most widely performed.

Ensemble Phoenix Basel and vocalist Marianne Schuppe give us a lively program of five Scelsi works from that period in the recent album RITO (Telos 191). Two of the five works include a vocal part, which Ms. Schuppe handles quite adroitly with expressiveness and nuance.

"Khoom" (1962), for soprano, French horn, string quartet and two percussionists is the longest work (at 22 minutes) and gives central place to the vocal part and its pivotal centering around a series of pitches, micro-intervals and use of vibrato for expressive purposes.

"Prana I" (1972) for alto, 12 instruments and tape recorder masses the largest ensemble of all the works here. It too has a very prominent vocal part and a sort of ritualistic use of limited pitches and microtonal permutations in highly dramatic, coloristic ways.

"Prana II" (1973) is a sequel for nine instruments. It uses long tones and coloristic elements to give us a soundscape even more stark than "Prana I" yet continuous with endless permutations around somewhat limited means tonally. If you speak of "minimalism" there are times where Scelsi is much closer to the visual equivalent in the art world than the composers given that categorization. Yet as here the coloristic and microtonic elements give us quite a bit of variability.

"Riti: I funerali di Alessandro Magno" (1962) has a dark cast, due in part to the instrumentation of contrabass, tuba, electronic organ, contrabassoon and percussion. Scelsi's treatment accentuates the tendency further with dramatic long-tones and a limited pallet of notes often low in the range of the instruments.

"Okanagon" (1968) concludes the program with some striking music for harp, tam-tam (gong) and contrabass that has an especially resonant sound as seemingly the strings of the harp and contrabass are allowed to vibrate against the tam-tam at key points. It at times reminds of Tibetan chants and their vibrating cymbal interludes and low throat-tone vocalizations. For "Okanagon" the sound color is vividly present and quite beautiful in a distinctive way.

I suppose that this group of works and their fine performances are as good a place as any to start with Scelsi's music if you do not already know it. And even if you do, this is a volume very much on target. His is a new music that does not aim to please as much as get inside the production of sound and its mysteries. So it's best to leave expectations behind. Any new music lover with a game spirit about travelling to unknown sound worlds will find this volume very interesting I would think. No understanding of 20th century innovations is quite complete without Scelsi. This is music of importance, very well performed.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ge Gan-Ru, Shanghai Reminiscences

Contemporary orchestral music runs a gamut of styles. Today we get a sort of neo-romantic programmatic music with pronounced traditional Chinese elements entering into the mix. Ge Gan-Ru (b. 1954) is at center-stage for the two-work CD Shanghai Reminiscences (Naxos 8.570609).

He was born and raised in Shanghai and now lives in the New York area. He apparently has written music in an avant mode but now turns to something mostly more conservative for the lengthy "Shanghai Reminiscences" (2009) and the briefer "Butterfly Overture" (2012).

Frankly, my first hearing of this disk was somewhat dismissive. The longer work follows on the path of an autobiographical tone poem about growing up in Shanghai. This is quite a bit more programmatic than what we are used to hearing nowadays, a sort of "Hero's Life" only even more literal than Strauss. So each segment depicts something in various ways, the sound of birds and a Sibelius-reminiscent dawning segment (that returns in the end), practicing scales (and yes, you get scales), street sounds (car horns), brief portraits of street pedlars, the storm and stress of the Cultural Revolution, everything laid out like a movie soundtrack, some of the thematic material inventively romantic, some Chinese, some close to banal but all easy-to-digest.

The "Butterfly Overture" features a chromatic scale to depict literally the path of the butterfly.

As I say, the first hearing, though the performances are fine, did not leave me wanting more. The Chinese elements were the more interesting parts. Some of the western romantic parts left me cold. The biographical reflex-music was sequential and not perhaps structurally meaningful.

But then as I listened more there were parts that hit me as interesting, that there was here and there a real spark of something original to recognize. Now I listen with more interest than at first hearing. It should certainly appeal to those who respond well to a literal program, who perhaps need the obvious meaning guideposts to get them through a long orchestral work. And I am no longer dismissive.

If based on this I say I appreciate Tan Dun all the more as my favorite living Chinese composer, I do think that Ge Gan-Ru is worth hearing. I would like to hear his more modernist works and see what he comes up with in the future. This album I'll play again, certainly. He has a way. It's not entirely my cup of tea, perhaps, but you cannot please everybody.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Peter Maxwell Davies, The Beltane Fire, BBC Philharmonic

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934) surely is one of the towering figures among living English composers. The systematic release of nearly all of his works (most originally on Collins Classic) on Naxos has helped me understand that.

It perhaps is in the miscellany that a composer shows his or her value across-the-board. But it isn't always fair to judge on those. If we only knew Beethoven from "The Creatures of Prometheus" we would be missing a great deal. Nonetheless it can be fascinating to explore an artist's byways.

With this in mind we turn to Peter Maxwell Davies and his recent reissue volume The Beltane Fire (Naxos 8.572362). It is indeed a volume of miscellany. This is a series of orchestral works from the late '80s through the middle '90s. It includes the ballet that never came to be ("The Beltane Fire"), running nearly 40 minutes, the near half-hour work "The Turn of the Tide," and several short works: "Sunday Morning," "Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner," and "Sir Charles his Pavan."

For all of this the BBC Philharmonic under the composer takes care of the performances, and quite respectably at that. "Tide" brings in several boys and girls choirs for a portion of the work.

There is good craftsmanship and inspiration readily to be heard here. The "Beltane Fire" has advanced harmonic modernity and a great variety of music, some obviously meant for the dance, some less so. It sounds much like the Maxwell Davies of the period, exploratory yet steeped in an orchestral expressiveness of the Maxwell Davies sort. "The Turn of the Tide" is symphonic narrative in a slightly less modernistic vein. The entrance of the choirs towards the end makes for some beautifully evocative music, rather brilliant and at times colloquial, a high point of the disk for me.

"Sunday Morning" is the expanded version of a theme for a BBC radio program. It is bright and pastoral sounding with a slightly regal cast. A little gem.

"Threnody" has a contemplative sadness and a resigned sort of quietude.

"Sir Charles his Pavane" was written for Charles Groves, the conductor who championed Maxwell Davis early on. It continues the quiet mood with well conceived parts for brass and strings.

That pretty much sizes it up. It is a volume that will certainly add to your Maxwell Davies appreciation. If it does not form the capstone of his works from this period it does provide an absorbing diversion. This would be by no means the first to get of his many volumes now on Naxos, but it is quite contentful nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

John McCabe, Composer, Pianist, Conductor

English composer John McCabe (b. 1939) makes music with a very personal stamp, modern sounding yet in a continuity that suggests earlier styles without seeming neo-classical. I came across his Visions, Choral Music and posted positively on it here last December 14, 2012. Now we have a goodly assortment of works in a new anthology composed of recordings originally released on LP or cassette and now for the first time joined together on a single CD.

Composer, Pianist Conductor (Naxos 8.571370) gives us an orchestral work and solo piano music composed between 1965 and 1969, then closes out with an orchestral work from 1985. As the title suggests McCabe is the pianist for the three solo piano works included, which are "Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt" (1967), "Capriccio (Study No. 1)" (1969) and "Sostenuto (Study No. 2)" (1969). All three works are dynamic, dramatic and occasionally call for a virtuoso ability that McCabe delivers quite readily. They have substance and dash. The Liszt "Fantasy" sounds like a potential classic.

Then there are two orchestral works, his "Symphony No. 1 'Elegy'" (1965) and "Tuning" (1985), the latter with McCabe as conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland; the former with John Snashall conducting the London Philharmonic.

"Tuning" makes use of a large orchestra for a kaleidoscope of modern tonal color soundscaping with mystery and texture. It shows you a very adventurous side of McCabe that pleases while orchestrationally giving off a brilliance that makes you wish there was more like it. Another CD? The Youth Orchestra may not be the Vienna Philharmonic but they give us a clear idea of the work.

His "Symphony No. 1" has three movements and an evocative quality a bit less avant than the later work but very well conceived and compelling in any event. Once again his orchestrational creativity comes to the fore.

Altogether this anthology gives you much to appreciate. It presents you with a snapshot of a composer we would do well to hear more from. Recommended for completists in the new music contingency but also for those a bit less avant-oriented, as the music fits its own world that partakes of 20th-century tradition and avant qualities equally and satisfyingly. Here is an English composer of merit.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Messiaen, La Nativité du Seigneur, Tom Winpenny

My own personal list of the best organ composers of the 20th century would place Messiaen at the very top. I am not alone in that feeling. He left us a body of organ works like no other. His combination of spirituality, his keen sense of what the modern cathedral organ can do and his compositional brilliance make for striking music that is modern yet partakes in the grandeur of the French Organ school as beginning with Franck through to his era.

La Nativité du Seigneur (The Birth of the Saviour) was one of his comparatively early works, written in 1935, yet it is also a masterpiece. There have been a number of recordings. Tom Winpenny gives us a new one (Naxos 8.573332). Along with the great Naxos price, this version is an excellent one. The old Candide LP anthology of organ music played by Reynaud if I am not mistaken included the final movement of this work. It introduced me like so many others of my generation to Messiaen's organ music. Judging by that movement alone Winpenny is very competitive. And based on my ears alone the rest of the performance is sensitively and passionately realized, very much characteristic of what Messiaen should sound like.

The work in its entirety is filled with color and contrast, mystery and triumph. Like any of the major Messiaen organ opus works it is "spooky" in its way, modern in ways often typical of early Messiaen yet with a special feel for how the organ can envelope listeners in a world of sheer sonic sensuousness.

I would not hesitate to recommend both the composition and Winpenny's performance. In fact I entirely do. Any student of 20th century organ, of Messiaen, or of modernism in general should have it. I am glad for it myself!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Chris Paul Harman, After JSB-RS, Works for Keyboards and Percussion

Modern works that pay homage to or utilize the music of past masters in an overt manner are not of course unprecedented. I can think of Stravinsky's tribute to Gesualdo for one. There are others. The practice goes back to pre-modern times.

The key is in the doing of course. Canadian composer Chris Paul Harman (b. 1970) transforms source materials from Bach's "Chorales" and "Two Part Inventions," and also two piano cycles by Robert Schumann on his After JSB-RS (Naxos 8.573303) in a series of five chamber compositions for piano(s) and percussion. The music that results is memorable and very interesting, modern with at times bit of a bite so to speak, atmospheric in ways that do not copy but are in the lineage of Messiaen and Crumb perhaps, and quite inventive.

It is the sort of thing where the music is so transformed that if you didn't know the sources you would mostly not notice them, so thoroughly re-thought is the music. The five works span the recent period between 2006 and 2013 and as such show the composer in a very productive mode. Central to the music is the standard piano, augmented by at times an untempered piano, toy piano, and prepared piano, which gather in various configurations in "After Schumann," "371" (this one especially vibrant in sound), and "After Schumann II." Each piece gives you a transformed coloristic palette of tones that belies their origins and creates beautiful patterns largely outside traditional harmonic-melodic classical form.

The "Concertino" from 2008 is perhaps the most ambitious, a short, four-movement work with a fascinating series of moving lines played by the McGill Percussion Ensemble emphasizing the vibrant color of bell-chime sonorities with celeste, piano and such.

"Der Tag mit seinen Licht" is one of the more stunning works. Scored for piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/recorder, violin, cello and percussion, it uses a core motif that then extends outward into beautifully expanded continual modulation with disjointed diatonic intervals that when put together do not fall easily into a key center or linear harmonic continuity. It is based on the Bach "Chorale" of the same name. It most certainly is a joy to hear.

This disk offers up some refreshing yet rather profound sound-forms that gives us a tonality at times highly extended and always as an alternative to classical form. Most times this is music that should be accessible to many in its poetic qualities and generally sonorous result. Yet the confirmed modernist will get much pleasure following the colors and permutations. The performances are excellent, too.

Chris Paul Harman is a composer to follow. This is a great starting point.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

John Cage, Ear for Ear, Cage Ensemble Berlin

In terms of sheer sound, there is more than one John Cage. There are many. Some of his works are dissonant or noise-sound oriented; there is the "ethnic" Cage of the prepared piano pieces; there is the diatonic Cage who shows a Satie influence; and there are vocal works that have a sort of ritual diatonics. There are other Cages, too. But for now that's enough.

Cage Berlin Ensemble Hamburg has a new collection out of his music entitled Ear for Ear (Telos Music 179). It is centered around music that has as its basis a text. Most of these feature vocalizing of that text; one is a piano work that was influenced by a text.

Much of the music here has enjoyed a good number of recordings. That is in part because much of it is very accessible. Some are more rare. All are well performed in his recording.

"ear for EAR" (1983) for two voices is, as the liner notes state, similar to "Litany for the Whale" (1980) for a single vocalist, in that both have a chant-like diatonicism based on syllables. "ear for EAR" is not as often heard as "Litany" but they go together well.

"Three Songs" (1933) for voice and piano is one of Cage's first compositions. Based on texts by Gertrude Stein, it shows you a proto-Cage in a mostly diatonic vein, closer in approach to the "new music" of the time yet a thing already apart.

"The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs" (1942) was especially well sung by Catherine Berberian. It has percussive parts where the singer strikes a closed-lidded grand piano with his or her hands. It has an ancient Asian ritual feel with text from Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake." On Berberian's untimely death Cage wrote a very brief sequel to the work in her memory, "Nowt Upon Nacht" (1984), which is more dynamic but based on the same premises. It is good to hear both works together.

"ASLSP" (1985) for piano solo is also based on "Finnegan's Wake" but is purely instrumental. It has eight brief movements and is more typically jagged in Cage's abstract style. It has a quietude though that makes it fit in with the program well.

"The Year Begins to be Ripe" (1970) is based on Thoreau and very briefly follows in the ritualistic mode of "Widow."

The last work represented here is "Experiences 1 + 2" (1945-48), which maps out for two pianos his more "ethnic" pentatonic style and has a sung part based on the poetry of e e cummings.

That is the run-down on what you will hear. The vocalists and pianists give us beautiful versions of the pieces, perhaps a bit more reverent and earnest and perhaps also a little less "new agey" as some recent versions of this music. And then you also get some rather rare pieces.

This is the "mellow" Cage that potentially appeals to a very wide audience. But it is hardly for that bits of fluff. This is as serious as any Cage work is in intent. The sound is melifluent in at times archaic ways but always intriguing. Cage Ensemble Berlin give us this music with real devotion and focus. And so the results are rather outstanding.