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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Sibelius, Symphony No. 2, Mariss Jansons, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks

My love of the music of Sibelius began in college. It was happenstance that I did not get to him earlier but his symphonies struck a nerve with me after repeated hearings and I've never gone back. Colin Davis and Eugene Ormandy are the conductors who have most satisfied me, who to me got right the delicate balance between luminescence and orchestral power which Sibelius was so good at.

But one should be able to appreciate new versions of old favorites if they give you some new and worthy wrinkle on the music. That's happened just now with Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester Bayerischen Rundfunks version of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 (BR Klassik 900144).

The second to me is Sibelius' first really original, his first great symphony. The first is a little too close to Tchaikovsky for comfort, though it is memorable and good to hear. The second gives us the blossoming of that incredibly lyrical melodicism and beautifully orchestrated way, plus that rather difficult-to-put-in-words "x" factor that marks him as special. "Finnish" is sometimes used to denote this, but it is more complex than simply a place-centered approach. He is simply one of a kind, neither modern in a typical sense nor derivative. There is a sort of neo-romantic, neo-impressionist wealth of theme and development in his best work that is ultra-singular.

So the second was the first symphony to show us his genius, undoubtedly. I've lived with a Colin Davis version on an old LP for years. Mariss Janssons gives us perhaps a more Beethovenesque, more robust version on the BR Klassik issue. And I'll admit I had to listen several times before I got used to it. But the wonderful audio quality and the sparkling performance of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in the end won the day for me.

Added to the program are the tone poems "Finlandia" and the "Karelia-Suite" that make this volume a very good introduction to Sibelius if you do not know him well. It also gives us a vivid performance of the second in a sort of thicker matrix than I am used to hearing. It is a rewarding disk for that and the fine sonics. Those who might be looking for a modern recording of the second will do well to try this one. I am in the end quite happy with it. Recommended!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Maya Beiser TranceClassical

Like her last album, Uncovered (see August 22, 2014 posting), Maya Beiser and her cello embark on a journey that crosses genres convincingly and magically. That is on her latest, TranceClassical (Innova 952).

The studio is her canvas on this album. Overdubbing and effects give her cello a larger-than-life aura and the arrangements carry the day. On the "covers" she makes of the songs-compositions something new and often enough, unearthly. Bach's "Air" orchestrates all parts on cello; Imogen Heap's beautiful "Hide and Seek" features Maya's very nice voice harmolodized as on the original, and adds a cello sonance that sets it apart. Lou Reed's "Heroin" gets a radically different treatment as arranged by David Lange, and Hildegard von Bingen surprisingly enters the ambient arena, thanks to Maya's iconoclastic arrangement of "O Virtus Sapientiae"!

Then there are some postmodern gems by Michael Gordon, Glenn Kotche, Julia Wolfe, Mohammed Fairouz, and David T. Little.

Maya's music is about not giving a good d about what is expected of her, of what contemporary music cello albums are supposed to cover. It's about creating an atmosphere of instant karma, of enchanting spellweaving, of what a modern studio and a lively imagination can produce.

Is this the future of modern classical? No. The future is not going to be about any one thing. There will be music that forms its own niche, coexisting with other niches alongside one another. If the music business has shrunk over the last decade or so, it may be a sign of pop death by asphyxiation. The die seems cast. It is the "serious" music category that will still be heard, collected and appreciated by a dedicated minority of aficionados, perhaps long after the billion dollar pop industry becomes truly marginal?

So in that way Maya Beiser is part of the future. The music glows and portends much. Check this album out, by all means.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Franz Liszt, Transcriptions of Symphonic Poems, Sergio Monteiro

One could argue that Franz Liszt was the single pianist-composer most responsible for establishing a fully orchestral solo piano style. Sure, Beethoven was the pioneer. Schumann, Chopin and Mendelssohn were important catalytic artists. But in the end Liszt created the ultimate expressive language--a full-voiced, multiple-lined totality that approximated the symphony orchestra for its wealth of figures and complexities. His most notable original solo piano works were the most influential, but then there were transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies and other orchestral works that gave further impetus to the virtuoso style he first fully cultivated in his peak middle period.

So it is only natural that there were also solo piano Transcriptions of Symphonic Poems (Naxos 8.573485) he himself wrote in his career. Naxos and pianist Sergio Monteiro give us six well and lesser known such transcriptions as Volume 43 of the ongoing Complete Piano Music Series.

"Les Preludes" and "Orpheus" are the most familiar of the poems and sound completely natural as solo piano arrangements. The initial transcriptions were done for these two by Karl Klauser and Friedrich Spiro, respectively, but then revised by Liszt himself, a process that leaves us with some convincing and exciting piano music. Sergio Monteiro gives us heroic performances for these and the other poems on the program. The music requires a great deal of virtuosity and of course a vivid sense of the music. Monteiro has it all. He understands the music and brings out the salient aspects very nicely.

There is much else of interest to explore. "Kunstlerfestzing" (second version, 1883) has much substance and charm. But really all of it makes for a Promethean program, including "Van der Wiege bis zum Grabe" (1882), "Der nachtlische Zug" (1872) and "Vierter Mephisto-Watzer" (1885).

Even the most devoted of Liszt admirers may not be familiar with all these transcriptions. Under the very capable hands of Monteiro it all comes alive for some lyrical and explosive piano fireworks that remind you just how paradigmatic Liszt was and is as the complete pianist.

It is hard to imagine Scriabin, Debussy, Alkan, Ravel, Sorabji, or even the Ives of the Concord Sonata without Liszt's example. But for all that this volume is also a joy to experience.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Harrison Birtwistle, Angel Fighter, In Broken Images, Virelai

I guess I have not heard enough of Harrison Birtwistle's music over the years to form a clean idea of what he is about. But that begins to change with the rather remarkable three-work release I've been listening to--Angel Fighter, In Broken Images, Virelai (Sus une fontayne) (NMC D211). On it David Atherton conducts the London Sinfonietta, with the addition of the BBC Singers, Andrew Watts, countertenor, and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, tenor for the initial work. The performances are excellent.

All three works appear to be of recent origin, and all show a very personal mastery of the modern chamber orchestra and choral group. The music is singular, dynamic, dramatic, and very full of tone color, especially "In Broken Images."

"Angel Fighter" re-enacts the biblical story of Jacob and his battle with an angel. It has a sort of "post-Wozzeck" expressionism that builds upon declamatory gestures and fully modern soloist, choral, orchestral interactions.

"Virelai" is equally worthwhile, short and neo-classically poignant.

I am mightily impressed with the music and performances. It shows us a Birtwistle in the full modernist vigor of creativity, a composer of great originality and inventive brilliance.

Very highly recommended.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Meridian Arts Ensemble, Seven Kings

I happen to love contemporary new music for brass ensemble, so the new Meridian Arts Ensemble album Seven Kings (Innova 943) immediately got my interest. It is a standout selection of compositions played with excellence in every way. Plus the group has as a regular member percussionist-drum set artist John Ferrari and that allows them to straddle jazz-rock oriented movements with dynamic ease and brings a new texture into the mix at other times with well-conceived percussion parts. Finally, trumpet ace Dave Ballou guests on the album to add some definite zing and to thicken the sound.

The compositions hold and keep interest levels high. Ensemble member Daniel Grabois opens the program with a jazzy "Migration." This is sophisticated, involved modern music that sounds just right for the ensemble and the same can be said of the other works on the program: David Sanford's title piece, Dave Ballou's own "For Brass Quintet and Percussion," Edward Jacobs' "Passed Time," Robert Maggio's five movement "Revolver." Neo-classical elements rub shoulders with avant, harmonically advanced sounds and contemporary jazz influenced flourishes.

It is all first-rate music played by a crack brass ensemble. If that sounds good to you, I think you will love the program as I do. Listen and get entranced!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Jeffrey Stadelman, Three String Quartets, New England String Quartet

Being a composer is generally a lifetime occupation. Age factors into the situation in a positive way, since ideally artistic maturity is cumulative and ever-broadening. It is not an activity that depends upon physical conditioning, as in baseball where even the very best are generally forced to retire around age 40 or so.

Jeffrey Stadelman, chairman of the department of music at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, a pupil of Stephen Dembski and Donald Martino, holder of a Ph.D. from Harvard, has been perfecting and evolving his music for more than 25 years now.

We've come across his music happily on these pages, notably on the album Messenger and Other Works (see June 27, 2013 posting). Today we further our exposure with a recording of his Three String Quartets (Navona 6048).

Stadelman's "Seraphita (Canons)," "Eastland," and the "String Quartet No. 2" get precision and passion from the New England String Quartet, who perform all the quartets in the volume.

All three works have a rigorous, terse quality, perhaps especially the nine "Seraphita (Canons)" that open the program. But even the longer, single movement "Eastland" says a very great deal in a relatively short period of time.

The music is deeply modernist in tenor, rather profoundly uncompromising, quartets with the concentrated punch that places them near Carter or Shostakovich at their best.

The three-movement "String Quartet No. 2" is somewhat less rhythmically abstract that the other two. An almost Viennese rhythmic feel hearkens back to, say, early Schoenberg quartets in essence, though Stadelman keeps to his own thematic use and development of expanded post-tonality.

These are marvelous examples of the high modernist art today, string quartets that deserve a wide hearing, presented in near definitive performances. It gives us some brilliant Stadelman and some of the finest quartets written in our times. Anyone with a love of the new music will profit greatly from this disk. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Philip Thompson, Ion Sound Project, Separate Self

Pittsburgh-based composer Philip Thompson gives us a program of new tonal postmodern chamber music on Separate Self (Ravello 7936) with focused performances by instrumentalists of the IonSound Project.

This is music often of an introspective, almost neo-impressionist cast, most notably in his "Nocturnes" (2014) for violin, viola and cello, in four groupings of three miniature movements. It is music of a fragile, transparent sort of magic, occasionally reminding one of Steve Reich's later phase, only with repetition more dimensional, an ostinato for a separate melody line and/or sometimes thematic in its own right, or both alternatingly. The music celebrates Galileo's 450th birthday via a reaction to Michael Morrill's paintings that in turn react to Galileo's moon drawings.

"Kecow Hit Tamen" (2011) pays homage to the composer's Lumbee Indian roots with a quintet of flute, violin, cello, clarinet and piano and spoken word that plays upon an Algonquin phrase that means "What is your name?" or "What is this?" The musical canvas of ruminative tonal abstraction and recitation is meant to capture the feeling of learning a new language. A video animation by Ryan Day was created to accompany the musical performance.

The "Score to the Film Virgil Cantini: The Artist in Public" (2009) is scored for flute, cello and piano--and has a related reflective mood.

"Trouble" (2007), for flute, violin, clarinet, cello and piano is based on a Gradual for the Second Sunday of Lent. It is lyrical and delicate, unfolding leisurely while it virtually reflects back on itself. There is a good deal of beauty here. The chorale like concluding passage gives the work a satisfying sort of "Amen,"

Finally, "Separate Self" (2013) furnishes for us a more outgoingly vibrant music with Ryan Socrates playing nicely a part for drum set in the first movement that drives forward the music for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. This is an interlocking, rhythmically vivid phraseology that has a nicely inventive melodic contour and pushes us forward with recognizably familiar pomo language which manages to be yet also strikingly original. The middle  movement slows things down and looks inward. The final movement brings back musical motion but with a different kind of linearity. "Separate Self" stays in the mind. It is quintessential Thompson.

All that is what the album is about. Philip Thompson manages to sound quite fresh and lyrical while making important contributions to the new tonal postmodern repertoire. Chamber music with a difference, accessible, well configured, Separate Self is a tonic for troubled times. Yet it does not pander to an "easy" ears sort of innocuousness. Recommended!