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Friday, November 21, 2014

Haydn, The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, Jeno Jandó, Solo Piano Version

In the course of this blog I have had the opportunity to review not one, but now three versions of Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. There has been the version for string orchestra, for string quartet, and now the solo piano version performed by Jeno Jandó (Naxos 8.573313). Why I have jumped at the chance to review each time becomes increasingly clear to me. There is perhaps no more harrowing scene in the biblical literature of Christianity than this. Jesus hangs on the cross, in agony. He expresses himself seven times, ranging from the needful cry "I thirst" to the heartbreaking "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" There is perhaps nothing more disturbing and dark than that moment, duly revisited every year in the Christian calendar.

That Joseph Haydn was commissioned to write a work on these last words for performance on Good Friday was fortunate, in that in dealing with the expressive power of this scenario he was pushed to the edge of the classical style he so brilliantly espoused. There was no question, for him, about writing the sort of work he did so well. Instead there are nine slow movements in a row, mostly in the minor mode, allowing him to express in his very own classicist way the tragic last moments of Jesus on earth as human, his earthly death.

Haydn's Last Words and Mozart's musical depiction of Don Giovanni's descent to hell in the opera of that name press two of classicism's greatest composers to the limits of classicism. If you compare what they did musically to romantic and later periods, you see clearly that classicism put strictures on expression that romanticism and later modernism eased significantly. I am thinking of Faust's ride to hell in Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust and Penderecki's hell-like musical depiction of the entombment of Christ in his Utrenja. Both Berlioz and Penderecki were freed progressively from the restraints of classicism to much more emotively expressive and anxious music. The effects are that much more thoroughly overwhelming, perhaps, and yet going back to Haydn you appreciate the challenges he had remaining true to the feelings of the narrative he was depicting yet staying within the conventions of musical meaning that were a part of his times.

And so the Seven Last Words manage to say so much. They are as dark as any classical work, as expressive (though of course Haydn's sturm und drang symphonies pioneered a heightened expressivity in the period) as anything you might hear from the era. If you were to look to a more or less clear expression of meaning in the musical syntax of the era, here is where you would find it.

But in the end his innovations in form and the literal program he was depicting make sense in the great power of the music. It is here that you find Haydn at his most starkly sublime. And the solo piano version perhaps even more so has a starkness inherent in its unrelenting pianism, its voluntary limitation of sound color, its limitation of pitch range at times to the center of the keyboard, only to burst forward ever the more dramatically as the higher and lower note options come in calculatedly to express contrast in a dark landscape.

Jeno Jandó gives us a performance that does not attempt to wow us with bravura panache. Such a display would destroy the dark and somber aura that Haydn lays out for us so brilliantly. Jandó puts all the expressivity needed into the music and no more. This is the proper reading to my mind. It is in the restraint that the sorrow comes through all the more. That most certainly was Haydn's intent and it in part is what makes this work so haunting. And when the music calls for it the more agitated expressive passages stand out all the more clearly.

So bravo to Jeno Jandó for this moving version. Very recommended.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jacques Hétu, Complete Chamber Works for Strings

Jacques Hétu (1938-2010), a pupil of Dutilleux, Messiaen and Lukas Foss, spent a lifetime composing and teaching in Canada. We come upon his music today in a most rewarding anthology of his Complete Chamber Music for Strings (Naxos 8.573395), as played by the New Orford String Quartet and guests.

This is serious, abstract modernist music of excellence, composed over much of his career between 1960 and 2004. The String Quartets No. 1 (1973) and No. 2 (1991) begin the program. They move out of the rarified, masterful territory of Bartok, Carter and Ligeti to occupy their own aural space. They alone are worth the price of admission, for they are significant and something to behold-hear. The string writing calls for virtuosity and passion and the New Orford Quartet realize it all with precision, grace and feeling.

By 2004 Hétu had become a bit less atonal but no less impactful as we hear from the lovely "Sextet, Op. 71," a work both pleasingly stringent and lyrical. In between we get shorter works that show both the hand of a master in the making and that of the made on the "Adagio and Rondo" from 1960, the "Scherzo" of 1992 and the haunting "Serenade" for string quartet and flute of 1988. The latter has an almost Bergsian depth of passion. It reminds me ever so slightly in the opening section of Berg's wonderful "Violin Concerto" yet does so strictly on its own terms.

At no point does inspiration flag. This is music we who have a commitment to the modern and the new should know, a disk we should have. The performances are no less effective than the music Hétu constructs so impressively.

Modernists take note. Jacques Hétu deserves your attention. You can hear the evolution of his style over his career on this program, and you like me will no doubt appreciate the various phases and want to hear more.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mary Dullea, Gothic, New Piano Music From Ireland

If we in the US have not heard very much from Irish contemporary composers, it is not because there is not much happening. The Irish are a most music of peoples, of course, and it stands to reason that we have been deprived for non-musical reasons. All that is moot with the new album by Mary Dullea: Gothic: New Piano Music From Ireland (Metier 28549). Ms. Dullea shows that she is an excellent exponent of new music performance in this sparkling anthology of seven works by some of Ireland's finest.

The music tends to be dramatic, gestural, filled with light and shadow, sound and silence. The music has the sort of ambience, much of the time, that George Crumb brought to prominence in some of his landmark solo piano works. The works here do not copy Crumb but step ahead with the same sensitivity to in-and-outside the piano color fields, dampening of strings, strumming and plucking strings, the use of space.

All the works have a singular feel to them, modern in a colorist's conception more so than much of the the wide skips and beyond-tonality of classic high modernism, even though some are harmonically-tonally edgy. Mary Dullea is in command and brings us performances that give us the music in its full mystery and vibrant narrative, sometimes torrential but always lucidly new.

These may be composers whose names you do not know (though some you might) but each has something worthwhile to say. The program consists of Ed Bennett and "Gothic," David Fennessy and "the first thing, the last thing and everything in between," Jonathan Nangle and "grow quieter gradually," Frank Lyons and "Tease," John McLachlan and "Nine," Grainne Mulvey and "Etude" and finally Benjamin Dwyer and "Homenaje a Maurice Ohana."

The music puts you firmly in the present without any sort of dilution. This is serious piano music and it is played with a touch of the magic that Mary Dullea has no shortage of....She is transcendent, powerful and tender all at once.

Very highly recommended.

It turns out I have jumped the gun posting here. Copies will be available February 10th, 2015. Keep a note of the date; you will no doubt want to order it when it’s released.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Captain Tobias Hume, "Harke, harke!" Lyra Violls Humors & Delights, Guido Balestracci

The fate of the outsider artist over time depends as much on fate as well as talent. In music for every Moondog or Harry Partch, there may be other talented composers outside of the mainstream whose music remains undiscovered, in time as much a factor of chance rediscovery entering into the picture as not.

Such a figure up until now has been Captain Tobias Hume (1549-1645), an English sea captain who as a sort of hobby composed and played music for the lyra viol, a six-stringed member of the viola da gamba family, roughly cello-like in size but with a more resonant tone and a wider range. He was a music natural, not formally trained in the academic art of music in any conventional sense. Two collections of his music were published in London in 1605. By the time of his 1645 death in circumstances of poverty he was already all-but-forgotten.

Guido Balestracci, Les Basses Reunies and Bruno Cocset have turned to those publications and made a nice selection from them in their album dedicated to his hitherto unknown music "Harke! harke!" Lyra Violls Humors & Delights (Alpha 197).

Maestro Balestracci plays the solo lyra viol part, at times unaccompanied, other times with a viol consort of Bruno Cocset on the dessus viol or a second lyra viol, Richard Myron on the consort bass, and, as needed, Bertrand Cuiller on the clavecin.

The sound of the violls are inimitable, rich and complexly reverberant. Hume wrote the viol parts in tablature, which means that the fingering positions are shown clearly for every note, but the tuning of the instruments, apparently according to practices of the time, are left to the players. The present recordings give us likely tuning choices and they give the players stops and open notes sounding very different to the present-day violin family. There are some very folk-like elements in the music, as well as a general jauntiness, skilfully done but not as subject to the rules of counterpoint and compositional practices of the day. The tunefulness and craftsmanship of the 25 brief works heard on this album are not to be denied. The combination of exceptional timbre and compositional inspiration make for very pleasurable listening.

Pieces are sometimes articulated pizzicato and give forth with uncanny sounds. But the bowed works no less so.

Balestracci, Cocset and Les Basses Reunies give us beautiful, idiomatically exotic readings of the works that make the Captain come alive for us once again, at least musically. It is a triumph of early music reconstruction that anyone who already knows and loves viol consort music will appreciate, but so will those who know nothing about the style and timbres. It's the sort of disk to play for a friend who thinks he or she knows early baroque music and how it sounds!

Highly recommended.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Simeon Ten Holt, Canto Ostinato XXL, Jeroen van Veen & Friends, Four-CD Version

Minimalism has had its ups and downs in our era. But if you think you know all there is to know about it, as I occasionally do (wrongly), there is something that will change your mind. I found an experience like that when I recently was sent the 4-CD version of Canto Ostinato XXL, a composition by Simeon Ten Holt (1927-2012). This version is played by four grand pianos and a full cathedral pipe organ, by Jeroen van Veen and Friends (Brilliant 94990 4-CDs). The work was written between 1976 and 1979, for four keyboards, give or take. There have been a number of recordings, from what I understand. This is by far the longest version, running well over four hours. Though I have not heard the other recordings I certainly can vouch for this one. Its lengthy playing time may make it difficult to hear in one sitting but that is no matter, at least to me. You lose nothing by dividing the hearing up into segments.

Fact is, it is a very beautiful work in the hands of van Veen and company. This is apparently the first version to bring in organ with four pianos and the results are excellent. 106 individual sections can be played for any length of time as desired. Each section generally contains a two-bar ostinato diatonic figure foundation in 5/4 and there are melodic thematic elements that can and do appear overtop the ostinato. There are segues that appear only once as transitional bridges. Some choice is given the performers on what to play and what to leave out and other parts can be added as seen as fitting by the players for their given version.

I am not entirely clear in my head how all that works but the hearing of this version lays it all out so that it doesn't matter. What you get is a beautiful work that has trance elements as well as melodic figures that are far from banal. In that sense there is a Riley-Reichian mesmerizing flow as well as the Glassian melodism. But really this sounds like neither, for Simeon Ten Holt goes his very own way. There are passages of such beauty that you feel like this might have been the minimalism you would hear if Chopin were alive today. But even that does not do justice to what occurs in the music.

The organ appears dramatically and selectively at key points in the work. Much of the time it is the four pianos alone. That only makes the organ's presence all the more special when it appears.

It is a work that needs to be heard by anyone attracted to minimalist structure. I would be so bold to say it is one of the masterpieces of the first minimal period, though I have never heard it prior to this set. The version is quite ravishing, with Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen, Marcel Bergman and Elizabeth Bergman resplendent for the piano parts; Aart Bergwerff very effective on organ.

I can't imagine a better performance, though no doubt there could be ones that sound different given the leeway the composer builds into the work. At the Brilliant budget price the 4-CDs come to you without breaking the bank and time goes surprisingly quickly when you hear this performance.

I must say the music moves me very much. No minimalist collection is complete without it, I would say. Very stunning work.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tristan Perich, Surface Image, Vicky Chow

Classic minimalism continues to be with us in various guises. Today we encounter composer Tristan Perich and his hour-long work Surface Image (New Amsterdam 060). It is written for solo piano and 40-channel one-bit electronics. What makes an electronic part "one-bit?" Apparently it is electronic music that never has more than one-bit of information for each part at any time during its execution. So that means the 40-part electronic portion of this work consists of 40 single lines.

Surface Images sounds exactly that way in its electronic score. It is a 40-"instrument" blanket of articulated repetitions that play against a challenging piano part played with great facility here by Vicky Chow. This is music that through gradually changing repetitions gives us a sort of trance effect, as classical minimalism tends to do.

The piece begins with rapid figurations that repeat and evolve at a steady pace for the first 20 minutes, then increase in speed for another 10 minutes, entering into ultra-rapid figurations 30 minutes into the work. The music slows again in steps over the last part of the piece, leaving the listener in the end with a less dense, more introspective wash of sound. Then it is gone.

Vicky Chow literally has her hands full executing the continuous part and she responds with a marvelous performance that is precisely what it should be--mesmerising and rhythmically precise but also expressive.

Those who love the total, tonal trance environment of early instrumental Reich, Riley and such will find this a new wrinkle on "traditional" ground. It is pleasing and never banal, fairly dense and ever-shifting.

If minimalism leaves you flat you will not appreciate this, I suspect. All the rest of us have something quite appealing and intriguing to hear. Bravo to Ms. Chow. And bravo to Tristan Perich.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Julian Sartorius, Zatter

Julian Sartorius, avant drummer-percussionist, embarks on his second solo adventure with the album Zatter (Intakt). I have yet to hear his first, Beat Diary, which consists of 365 pieces covering a full year of sound art. He has played with various Euro-improvisational new jazz groups including the trio of Colin Vallon as well as Co Streiff & Russ Johnson's quartet.

Zatter consists of 14 improvised entities that end up sounding more in the realm of new music than percussion in the rhythmic or jazz-oriented sense. According to Sartorius, "Zatter" means in old German "the disorder when things are strewn all around." That perhaps is ironic because each piece has a fairly clear sonic palette, each unto its own. Nothing is overdubbed or involves the use of electronics. In all Sartorius in the course of the album produces sound complexes from various combinations of drums, cymbals, spanish goat-bells, gongs, vibrators, rubber balls, sound bowls, bull-roarer, shruti box, lumbers, glockenspiel, kalimbas, tubes, mbira, and metals.

Things can have a periodicity but few have anything overtly drummer-percussionist-rhythmic about them. The few that do have greater interest to my ears. He is highly inventive and each piece has such a way about it that often one spends time contemplating how he made the sounds. Sometimes it seems as if bowing is involved; other times there is an ambient sort of vibratory feedback sound that gives one a feeling of being in an electronic zone.

Ultimately this is a credit to Sartorius and his ingenuity. It fascinates but ultimately does not hang together so much as music as it does percussive experiment. That is something in itself. Those with a very adventurous soul will probably respond. Others may not.