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Monday, October 5, 2015

Susan Chan, Echoes of China, Contemporary Piano Music

We live in an age where the entire world becomes ever closer to us, certainly from a musical standpoint. Chinese composers in the modern classical realm serve as an excellent example. There has been a blossoming of them in our era, and a good amount of the music can be found in commercial issue.

Pianist Susan Chan brings to us six works for solo piano by five living contemporary Chinese composers on Echoes of China (Naxos 8.570606). The works date from between 1964 and 2013.

The music is in a modern tonal mode with varying degrees of traditional Chinese melodic elements represented principally by pentatonic means. Each composer occupies his or her own stylistic niche but the anthology has a kind of unity via its nationalistic orientation. Zhou Long represents the more modernistic side with "Pianobells" (2012); Alexina Louie sounds a bit more on the impressionistic side in her "Music for Piano" (1982). Somewhere within these poles fall works by Doming Lam, Tan Dun and Chen Yi.

Susan Chan's performances are nicely expressive, pianistic and dramatic or contemplative, depending on the mood of the work.

It is a volume that speaks to us eloquently and gracefully. It serves as a good introduction to some of the finest present-day Chinese composers but also provides excellent fare for those already initiated into the modern classical music of some or all of the participants. A very good album, this is.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, Stille-stykkje, Olav Kielland, Erik Daehlin

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus is a magically poetic pianist who specializes in repertoire that combines modern classical and folk idioms. Stille-stykkje (LabLabel 2015) is an offering of quiet piano works by two composers who have concerned themselves with Norwegian folk forms, transformed in different ways.

Olav Kielland (1901-1983) became enthralled with Norwegian folk music in the 1940s, especially the harding fiddle and vocal traditions. He moved his family to the west of Telemark, Norway to better immerse himself in the music. The sound of the natural world around him and the folk forms he so loved came together early on in his stay. When he heard his young daughter playing simple melodies on the piano it gave him the idea for the 20 quiet pieces, "Villarkorn," which exude a kind of naturalism and a sensitivity to the folk forms he heard around him. Ms. Nyhus performs the strikingly singular music with a sympathetic dedication that makes it all work.

Kielland felt strongly that folk-influenced music should not lose sight of the modality, grooves and polyphony of the originals. And so the 20 pieces come before us at times in utter simplicity, but perhaps deceptively so, since the irregularity of living folk tradition is somehow inherent in the pieces, as well as the special traits involving modal tonality, multi-part writing and an underlying freedom of expression. So it is not just simplicity that the music is about. And the music becomes more complex as the sequence of 20 pieces progresses. Ms. Nyhus internalizes the Kielland ethos and gives it back to us with beautifully evocative performances. If Satie was Norwegian and became enthralled with local forms, his music might have sounded something like this. That is a gross simplification, but it will give you some idea of the music's impact.

In contrast we have the music of Erik Daehlin (b. 1976), which Ingfrid presents to us in four interrelated segments. The music takes archival folk singing examples and excerpts melodic fragments, transforming them acoustically to varying degrees, then builds a solo piano part around them. His is a more disjunct modern approach but very fitting as a contrast to the "Villarkorn" pieces. The snippets of recorded vocalizations come at us in a quietly, ghostly sort of eerieness, as if the past were communicating to us from a distance, very much still alive.

And that in a way is what this album is about, the resurrection and transformation of a vivid body of folk forms, with contemporary music made out of the essence of its aural images to fashion a music anew.

It is thoroughly beautiful, still, quiet, yet with a movement through to the present, like water rippling forward inexorably but gently in a quiet rural stream.

This is a program of great beauty. Ms. Nyhus gives us ideal performances. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bach-Chindamo, The New Goldberg Variations, Joe Chindamo & Zoe Black

The old and the new are ever-combining lately. Not that such a thing has not been happening throughout the history of humanity, but every era or period has something peculiar to it in the way it happens, at least musically. I don't have a full picture in my mind about the present yet, but early music and baroque music have offered possibilities for new music amalgams a good deal in the past half-century, it seems. And there have been successful hybrids to come out of that idea, surely.

A fascinating and effective example of this can be heard on The New Goldberg Variations (ALFi 15002). It is Johann Sebastian Bach's complete "Goldberg Variations" with a stylistically consistant, new counterline on the violin written by Joe Chindamo. Joe plays the piano part for the recording and Zoe Black takes the violin part.

The result is a new work, born of the old. The violin part adds a good deal to the music, a second or third voice in the counterpoint much of the time, and occasionally a reinforcement of the piano line, the latter of which remains just as Bach wrote it. Sometimes we get a kind of variation within a variation; other times an extension of Bach's contrapuntal thinking. Chindamo creates a sympathetic and very credible, even wondrous work out of it all.

Zoe Black and Joe Chindamo sound very buoyant, very spirited together here. Both are from Australia. Joe composes and both can play in a jazz mode apparently, but that is not what is happening on this album.

I was prepared to be disappointed, only because the "Goldberg Variations" have gained such an iconic footing in their original form that I wondered about the need of adding to them. I was wrong. The "New Goldberg Variations" are not meant to replace the old ones. They give you a fine new look at what can go with it all, a second work that can take its place proudly next to the original and be experienced as a nicely variant set of variations.

For all that I am fully satisfied and elated with this recording. It is a must for all Bachaholics as well as anybody looking for a new sonic experience. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Andrew Staniland, Talking Down the Tiger, and Other Works for Solo Instruments and Electronics

Andrew Staniland is a young Canadian composer of promise. His Talking Down the Tiger (Naxos 8.573428) presents five works for solo instrumentalists and electronics, the latter reinforcing and subtly adding to the live part in real time through recorded playback or alteration of the live sound.

"Talking Down the Tiger" features quiet toms and mallets (played by Ryan Scott), extended and altered via looping.

"Dreaded Sea Voyage" is for classical guitar (Rob MacDonald) and electronics, based on the recording on board the NASA reconnaissance space vehicle Voyager containing a sampling of "human music" in case the craft encounters other life forms in its travels through the universe. The guitar parts are altered versions of some of the music; the electronic part subtly adds to it.

"Flute Vs. Tape" has a most vivacious flute part, played with a dynamic energy by Camille Watts. The tape part is composed of the second flute, acting contrapuntally.

"Still Turning" is for cello (Frances Marie Uitti) and towards the end, a tape part that recalls themes from the other two works with which "Still Turning" forms a trilogy. In this, one of two movements that make thematic use of lines from T.S. Elliot's poem "Four Quartets," "Still Turning" captures via virtuoso cello the feeling of standing still while at the same time being in motion, for example if we stand motionless on earth as it travels rapidly in its orbit.

The final work, "True North," for soprano saxophone (Wallace Halladay) and electronics, captures in sound the fact that magnetic north or even "true north" changes position slightly over time according to changes in the earth's axis and other factors. A circle of four microphones corresponding to the four compass points feed into four-fold, widely separate speaker playback which the performer controls through playing in proximity to each microphone at will.

The music is basically tonal modern, with a bit of a harmonic-melodic edge, an attention to sound color and electronic enhancement, all of which subtly plays out on each piece.

Staniland certainly has imaginative conceptual creativity that he realizes in each of the pieces. The music sounds eclectically contemporary and retains interest. The electronic part generally reinforces the live music without calling much attention to itself. This may not be the album of the year among new music releases, but it is not uninteresting!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ibert, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, etc., The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Adriano

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) is perhaps best known for his "Escales," but there is quite a bit more music from him, much of which does not get a great deal of performance these days. One might suppose that there were so many brilliant French composers competing for attention during his lifetime that Ibert has been unduly neglected as a result.

All that can be rectified in part by a new volume of some of his lesser-known orchestral-choral music, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Naxos 8.555568) as respectably performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Adriano.

The title work, based on the poem by Oscar Wilde, was considered rather daring, having been first written as symphonic poem between 1920 and 1922, and performed soon after. Its deft handling of a bleak prison world and themes of the terror and anguish of an inmate who had murdered his wife were controversial at the time. As a first orchestral work it has touches of the influence of Debussy and Ravel but a well-crafted and dynamic originality as well. It was converted into a ballet and first performed in this vein at the Opera Comique in 1937.

We find some worthwhile additional works on this anthology, namely Ibert's "Trois Pieces de Ballet" of 1921-22, a three-part concert suite from the ballet score, meant to depict various characters who frequented his mother's salons, the brief "Feerique" and "Chant de Folie," both from 1924, and the lengthier "Suite Elisabethaine" (1944), written with early music touches for incidental performance in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

You can readily hear progression and development in Ibert's impressionist/quasi-romantic stylistic approach in these chronologically presented works. They are all quite pleasing if perhaps not exactly world-class 20th century masterworks. They do add a good deal to understanding and appreciating Ibert, helping to flesh out a multi-dimensional portrait of the man and his music.

It has its charms and will afford you a good bit of enjoyment, especially if you are of the Francophile contingency. It may not be particularly essential listening, but not everything can be that, after all. It pleases.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Lukas Foss, Complete Symphonies, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

By the time I became a bonafide, dedicated follower of new classical and avant garde music, that is in the early '70s, Lukas Foss (1922-2009) was at a peak in public recognition as one of the leading modern compositional voices in the USA. I am thankful for that because it gave me the chance to hear much of his work, as recordings of it were fairly plentiful and readily available. His notoriety faded somewhat in later years as did the popular attention to new music and subsequently too my undivided attention to it for a decade or so.

Nonetheless I have found many of his works essential and my appreciation for his brilliance has gone undiminished. Looking back, I especially admire the "Time Cycle," which incorporated chamber improvisation, the "Baroque Variations" and its use of baroque musical sources to create an old-new amalgam, and his "GEOD" which nicely anticipated and offered a very personal solution to cyclical structures for a style that became in time known as minimalism. A proto post-modern poly-stylism characterized all of these works, for music that managed to be advanced yet highly appealing to most adventuresome ears. They and the majority of recorded works available then showed a composer acutely tuned to stylistic possibilities otherwise then mostly latent, and a vivid sense of drama and significant form, a personal originality and uniformly high level of craftsmanship and artistic inspiration.

Like anything else in music, the newness element fades and we are left with works that either still manage to speak to us, or, sometimes otherwise. To me Foss still sounds fresh and relevant, ever more so.

For whatever reason I never encountered his four symphonies. Some of course were not yet written, and there may have been some obscure recordings available of the first several at the time but I never came across them when I was most actively combing through the classical record store stacks.

Fortunately and most happily the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a fine organization devoted to resurrecting now unjustly neglected orchestral gems in the modern zone, has under Music Director Gil Rose taken care to provide us with excellent performances of all four Foss symphonies in the two-CD set Complete Symphonies (BMOP Sound 1043).

The symphonies cover most of Foss's career, from 1944 through 1995, and were a platform where Lukas could synthesize, sum up and put into definitive form what stylistic universes he was either then traversing or was subjecting to retrospective attention. So we get the mysterious and atmospheric minimalism of "GEOD" refined, re-presented and integrated into a lush orchestral tapestry on his Symphony No. 4, "Window to the Past", or his own magnetically singular neo-classicist way in his 1944 Symphony No. 1.

Each symphony is a milestone, as it turns out, in the overall body of Foss works. I am delighted to get to hear them in their full and detailed glory so wonderously realized by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Rose. I am sure this volume will turn more than a few heads while also reminding us dramatically how important a composer Lukas Foss was, how central he sounds today.

It is with the heartiest recommendation that I present this set to you now. Anyone with an interest in 20th century modernism will gain I think great pleasure and insight by listening to this set. It is surely a candidate in my mind for the record of the year.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Dutilleux, Metaboles, L'Arbre des Songes, Symphony No. 2, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) is often enough presented as a modern-day impressionist, a successor to Debussy and Ravel. That is doubtless true in that his music has a luminousness and vivid color palette that has something in common with the orchestral brilliance of those composers. He also has some organic affinity at times with the music of Messiaen. But on the other hand Dutilleux's music has an idiosyncratic quality, a modern approach that puts him in his own space in fine ways.

The volume at hand is an excellent example of this. It is a recent Seattle Symphony recording under Ludovic Morlot, presenting the works Metaboles, L'Arbre des Songes, Symphony No. 2 (Seattle Symphony Media SSM1007). The Seattle Symphony aims to record all of Dutilleux's orchestral works, and this volume is a part of that. As it so happens it is an excellent place to start, as the three works are very fine examples and the orchestra excels under Morlot in bringing them very much to life.

There is a continuity to be heard in the three works on the program despite having been written at contrasting points in time: "Metaboles" in 1964, "L'Arbre des Songes," a Violin Concerto, in 1985, and "Symphony No. 2 'Le Double'" in 1958. All three make excellent use of orchestration to bring out the shimmering quality of his constructions. The Seattle Symphony thrives in poetically realizing the full spectrum of sound colors inherent in the music, and the recording takes maximal advantage of the digital medium to give to us the detailed sound complexes in a gloriously full sound staging.

"Metaboles" and the "Symphony No. 2" share a rather mysterious, atmospheric liveliness that remains modern at all times in its sophisticated melodic-harmonic demeanor, with a kind of narrative unfolding that may suggest all manner of associations to the listener without evoking anything literal. It is sonic poetry of great depth and subsequently great appeal.

The concerted "L'Arbre des Songes" features an excellent performance by violinist Augustin Hadelich. As the later of the three works it shows a movement of Dutilleux's music from the profoundly sensual to the somewhat more concretely expressive, part of that stemming from the nature of the solo violin's role as Dutilleux conceived it. The orchestral passages remain vividly colorful. The rhythmic elements of the work are slightly more elaborately diffuse as violin and orchestra dialog with one another articulately. The violin's role is virtuostic and complexly declamatory in very musical ways, a showcase yes, but firmly tied to the musical vision of the composer. It is perhaps the most overtly "modern" of the three works at times, yet clearly partakes of the general thrust of the concerto form as it has evolved over the past century or so.

In the end we are treated to state-of-the-art Dutilleux, performed with great care and sensitivity to all the orchestral nuances that mark the composer's special sound.

It is a remarkable achievement. I surely look forward to the other volumes to come. In the meantime this one is ravishing, a stunner on all levels.