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Friday, March 27, 2015

Howard Hersh, Angels and Watermarks

Once again, the happy happenstance of my visibility as a critic-reviewer has allowed me access to a new voice on the compositional scene that I would probably not have been exposed to otherwise. Today it is Howard Hersh and his music for piano and chamber orchestra and solo harpsichord, Angels and Watermarks (self-released).

The keyboard soloist is Brenda Tom, who sounds quite excellent in the central role here.

The "Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments" in three movements opens the program. It has a post-romantic, post-modern piano part filled with motion and unexpected tonal twists and turns. The chamber orchestra parts surrounding the solo statements are well conceived and work together to create a very lively post-modern, post-minimal synchrony that features trading off of motival elements throughout. The piano part has real grit and the entire work has very memorable melodic dash. The performance is sturdy with Ms. Tom leading the way definitively and the chamber ensemble giving us a fine idea of the total sound at hand in the work.

From there we go to two works for solo harpsichord, "Angels and Watermarks," a five movement suite, and "Dream," the ten minute closer.

Both give us a more intimate side of the composer, music that sounds well on the harpsichord, music with neo-classic/vernacular contemporary flourish. The music is inventive and modern yet hearkens back to a time when the harpsichord was a central fixture of a musical world much as the piano was for the years of the salon and beyond.

None of this music is cliche, all sounds fresh. Maestro Hersh adds a distinctive turn to all the music heard here. He is an original and without at all taxing the listener gives us something to follow with pleasure. I look forward to more from him!

Recommended.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Felt, Striking Works for Solo Piano, Various Composers

You can depend on Navona consistently to introduce new and lesser-known composers and their works. Today, an anthology of solo piano, Felt, Striking Works for Solo Piano (Navona 5987). Eight works by seven composers are here to explore. We get one a piece by Matthew Durrant, Rachel Lee Guthrie, Amir Zaheri, Richard Pressley, Byron Petty, Ron Nagorcka, plus two by Robert A. Baker. The performance duties are shared by Karolina Rojahn, J. Bradley Baker and Robert A. Baker.

Musically we are placed in terrain that straddles an open modernism and an open post-modernism. There is much in the way of dramatic gesture and expressiveness. Beyond that there is an open sky within which anything is possible and everything potential.

If you have a sense of adventure these well-executed performances of the ultra-new will capture your imagination. Lively music! Recommended.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

William Bergsma, The Voice of the Coelacanth

In the old LP days one might often be introduced to a composer because he (or she) occupied the obverse side of an album that you bought for what was on the other one. That happened to me once or twice with the composer William Bergsma (1921-1994), I believe a Turnabout and a CRI LP (which I still have around here someplace). The music impressed me to a point that I sought out other recordings of his music. Time moved on and at his passing in 1994 I was not aware of much coming out of his. Yet he left an impression that made me jump at the chance to hear a newly issued recording of his music, The Voice of the Coelacanth (Centaur 3371). It is an anthology of chamber works for small ensembles and solo piano, spanning a time period between 1943 and 1983.

These are mature, modern works in a kind of neo-classical style somewhere between Stravinsky and Hindemith, that somewhere being Bergsma's own turf. Thematic memorability and drama are embedded in harmonically advanced terms.

We get "The Voice of the Coelacanth" for violin, horn and piano (1981), which has a dramatic turn that makes especially good use of the power and dynamics of the horn. "Changes for Seven" (1971) for woodwind quintet, percussion and piano has a rather dreamy yet declamatory sort of gestural quality and again makes the horn stand out from the ensemble at points.

Then there are two suites for solo piano, "Three Fantasies" (1943, rev. 1983), and "Tangents" (1951), both of which cover a lot of moods and modes in impressive ways.

The performances are very decent, sometimes very, very decent. In the end you are exposed to a good batch of first-rate Bergsma, who indeed still deserves to be heard and comes through with plenty of excellent music to contemplate.

Any student of 20th century American modernism would profit by getting to know this disk--and derive some genuine pleasure as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Isaac Albeniz, Piano Music 7, Hernan Milla

Isaac Albeniz (1850-1909) was a prolific and important Spanish composer. His early years were devoted to writing in a salon style. By around 1885 he began to combine traditional Andalusian Spanish elements into a quasi-impressionist style, ultimately writing masterpieces for solo guitar such as "Granados" and the very beautiful piano suite "Iberia." He was a supreme melodist and an inspired craftsman. Outside of specialists most of us haven't heard but a fraction of his lesser-known works.

Naxos in their ever-admirable goal of completeness have gotten up to a seventh volume (Piano Works 7 [Naxos 8.573160]) of solo piano pieces. Since I have not had as much experience with the lesser-known Albeniz I thought I'd check in with the latest volume. Does it stand up compositionally to the highest heights of Albeniz in this peak years? The answer is no, not quite. But then I would say, "but still..." because there is much to like on this disk.

Pianist Hernan Milla does the honors as the pianist on this volume. And he plays with a sympathy and flair that seems just right for the music.

Essentially the volume covers two substantial works, the suite of miniatures "12 Piezas caracteristicas, Op. 92" (1888) and the "Sonata No. 3, Op. 68" (1886). These are a product of the very beginning of his most inspired period, ending with his death in 1909. So we get a good variety of styles, some more in a salon or later romantic vein (the latter especially so on the "Sonata"), some with the first fruits of his Andalusian-influenced neo-impressionist style. The miniatures for all that are very much worth hearing. The music can be charming, enchanting, contentful or somewhat less so. There is nothing mediocre to be heard and ultimately much of it comes as a breath of fresh air.

I would not quite say that this volume is indispensable. I am sure there are earlier volumes more in line with the best-of-the-best. Nonetheless he is never less than accomplished. And there are moments of true brilliance to be heard here.

Anyone with a deep interest in the Spanish scene of the early modern period should probably have it all. "Iberia" is a must-have for anyone, but I have no doubt there are lesser-known treasures in the first six volumes as well. This one comes through like the first rays of spring sunshine. It is not yet a full-bloom Albeniz but very much a budding one. The listen is an excellent one.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Carl Nielsen, New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6 "Sinfonia semplice"

Just this morning before I woke up I had one of those dreams that seemingly sets the tone for things to come. This past week, no doubt about it, was one of the very worst I have experienced. Illness, the death of one of my best friends, the impending worry of the wolf at the door. The dream went back to the time when I worked in the advertising department of Prentice Hall (now known as Pearson Publishing) which then as I guess now was one of the major publishing companies of higher education books. The then head of the department was a visionary creative soul, one Diane Kuppler-Weaver. She believed strongly in a creative approach to everything. But this dream was crazy even by her standards. We had made our money on the big books in the months before. Now it was time for "crazy month." The products we were assigned to promote were all off-the-wall, paper records, books made out of sandpaper, oddly folded books with elaborate papercuts...and somebody had taken my desk and replaced it with an old medieval banquet table, cut a hole in my wall and placed in the space a strange looking mask. We were given oddly painted strips of paper to promote, all kinds of crazy stuff, everybody was wearing costumes. It was all insane. Diane explained that the higher ups had realized that if we all worried about making money, instead of good ideas, that we and our entire economic system would collapse. So mad month was all about having fun doing what you loved, doing what you were good at, not worrying about the consequences but filled with faith that our creative abilities could remake our world from the nasty spirited, mean thing it was to a creative one where all did well by doing things well.

I woke up and knew it was the right message for me today. And maybe for all of us. As it happens the last and best two symphonies by Carl Nielsen, No. 5 and No. 6, were up for the classical blog as a concluding volume in the definitive set by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert (DeCapo 6.220625). They happen to fit right in with the idea that you do best by being yourself, your best creative self. Carl Nielsen was in the end no leader of modern schools of composition. He most waywardly and perhaps even obstinately insisted on being himself, neither a screaming modernist nor an old-fashioned conservative, making music that was not supposed to be beautiful, but "characteristic," as he told a musician who was performing one of the symphonies in those first days after the player asked him, "Is this supposed to be beautiful?" Not beautiful. Characteristic.

Paradoxically Nielsen's 5th and 6th are two of the most beautiful symphonies of the 20th century. But they redefined beautiful to fit Nielsen's vision of it. They are monuments in Nielsenism, titanic structure in motion, beautifully expressive but not sentimental in the Victorian drawing room sense of beauty, with hot house flowers, over-stuffed furniture and a ton of gimcracks and geegaws. Everything fits together beautifully. There is not an ounce of excess and the passages are all rather totally selfless in the most self-filled way.

I've long cherished both symphonies. As for the Sixth, I have been happy with a number of versions over the years. For the Fifth an old LP by Jascha Horenstein and the New Philharmonia has long been the at the top of my list. Some of that was for the part of the symphony where the snare drummer was instructed to do his best to interrupt the orchestra with an all-out assault, something that appealed very much to my classically trained percussionist sympathies. The snare drummer for the New Philharmonia sounds like Gene Krupa gone mad, hitting rimshots and causing a real ruckus. The New York Philharmonic's snare drummer is much more in the rudimentary, let's just march the hell off of here mode.

But in all other ways Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic carry the day, with carefully impassioned readings of both symphonies that are surely to my mind definitive. It is a moving disk, something a Nielsenite will cherish and a newcomer will get the best possible way into the works. This is by all means a triumph! Now I must find a middle ages banquet table and cut a hole in the wall. Nielsen is the 20th century model of a go-to-hell originality. Only he didn't go to hell. What better time than now to be reminded of what counts?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Alan Hovhaness, Symphony No. 48 "Visions of Andromeda," Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz

Some composers from last century were so prolific that we are still trying to catch up with their output. That is most certainly true of Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) who wrote 67 symphonies and countless other works. I had the good fortune to discover him early in my listening days, I believe it was 1966 or 1967, when I happened on a cutout of his music that had a strong influence on me and remains one of my favorites among his recordings.

Hovhaness throughout his career has made use of his Armenian heritage but also of the music of the East and Asia as a whole in fashioning works that are tonal but more world-inspired than looking back to the classical tradition, though counterpoint and other classic devices are usually present.

Gerard Schwarz and the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra have devoted themselves to a program of Hovhaness scores that have not been often heard. The centerpiece, his Symphony No. 48 'Vision of Andromeda' (1982) (Naxos 8.559755) enjoys its world premiere recording here, and there are two other works that are nice to hear, the early "Prelude and Quadruple Fugue" (1936, rev. 1954) and the "Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings" (1980).

"Symphony No. 48" has an Eastern sort of mystical quality that is not untypical of the composer. There is an Eastern minor-mode tonality that has some affinities with Eastern Orthodox Chant as well as lots of orchestral color and contrast. It is well-crafted, inspired and performed with the spirit and verve one might expect from Gerard Schwarz.

The "Prelude and Quadruple Fugue" has all the earmarkings of typical Hovhaness, yet the early provenance of the short work shows a perhaps more thoroughly neo-classical stance than the typical mature Hovhaness. It is fascinating and well-wrought.

The "Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings" holds great interest for the Hovhaness acolyte. It too is filled with Eastern qualities. The solo part is played well by Greg Banaszak. As with many classical sax players he retains a strongly present vibrato that takes a bit of getting used to. Once one does there is much music to appreciate.

This would not be my first choice if I were to choose a handful of indispensable recordings, but at the Naxos price it is well worth having, even if you have not been previously exposed to the composer. Schwarz and the Eastern Musical Festival Orchestra give us their all and the music is of a uniformly high quality. I for one am glad to add it to my Hovhaness collection. Buy it with no qualms. It is well-done.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Michael Vincent Waller, The South Shore

When I was young there were thousands of jobs in my area for delivery truck drivers--not just the post office, but the milk man, the bread guy, the cleaners, even somebody peddling fruit. Not many families had two cars then and the housewives depended on deliveries. Our mailman was the most regular and the most important one, at least to me. He seemed to be a happy soul. He was ALWAYS whistling. And being a musically inclined kid I used to listen to WHAT he whistled. It was never a song that I recognized. Instead they were seemingly open-ended, non-periodic diatonic melodies. He might linger on a phrase a few times, then move on. I don't hear much whistling anymore; but never again did I hear quite this kind of whistling and it stayed in my mind.

The music of Michael Vincent Waller at times reminds me of our mailman from back then. I am speaking of his new two-CD set of chamber works, The South Shore (XI Records XI136). (Look for Michael in the search box above for reviews of two piano disks that preceded this album.) Michael has at times tapped into the folk diatonic mind (and sometimes pentatonic as well). Like that mailman, only of course considerably more sophisticatedly, he ignores the obvious periodicities (aaba, etc.) of song form to build sprawling diatonic (or pentatonic) melodic sequences. They may have repeated and related variation sequences that in some ways do what 12-tone composers used to do with chromaticism, that is to build towers of melodic sounds that become variations on variations. Not to say that Michael is subjecting his melodies to some rigorous rules of sequence, for it feels more intuitive and in that way a reflection on the folk mind (of my mailman, but more phenomenologically of the universal folk mind in everyday life).

This perhaps is a rather gross simplification of his approach. There are also times where there is more rapid passagework that suggests the east, perhaps a little redolent of gamelan passagework. And there is more besides. He is not in the "Radical Tonality" school of some of the Cold Blue label composers, because they use diatonicism as ritually ambient presences and Michael does that not so much. He is another kind of tonal simplissimo structuralist.

So we get 21 mostly brief compositions and suites for all manner of small chamber gatherings. We get music for solo clarinet; clarinet and percussion (gongs); solo flute; viola and piano; solo cello; solo piano; solo violin; a larger ensemble of flute, piano, violin, viola and cello; one for flute, alto sax, electric guitar, viola, cello and trombone; solo organ; cello and organ; piano, violin and cello; violin and cello; violin, viola and cello; and string quartet.

Throughout all these instrumental configurations we get a kind of singing (or whistling) forth, a whisp of natural expression sometimes reminiscent of Asian classical and its heightened melodic spatiality in silence.

It is music that engages somewhat disarmingly. But then you go back and there's more to it on further listens. I don't know what the world will make of this music but I find it, like some Satie, deceptively simple with a sort of underlying folk-mind sense to it.

Listen and decide for yourself. It is worth your time!