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Friday, December 30, 2011

Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 4, Symphony No. 5, Schwarz, Seattle Symphony

Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony continue their Hanson (1896-1981) Symphony Cycle with the release of Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5 (Naxos 8.559703). There was a time when Hanson's stature as an American composer was perhaps a little more assured than it may be today. His affiliation with Eastman School of Music and his many recordings for Mercury in the '50s had something to do with it. The "Requiem" Symphony No. 4 and the "Sinfonia Sacra" No. 5 were written in 1943 and 1954, respectively, more or less as he approached the height of his reknown. They are essentially Romantic in nature. He and Samuel Barber are the principal such composers of the American 20th century as far as I am concerned, and both sooner or later came into a version of it that was pretty wholly theirs.

The middle period Hanson sometimes strikes me as being a sort of rich Nordic dessert. It is lush, sated, majestic, filled with glorious peaks and pithy quietude in alternation. The Requiem is understandably somber and elegaic; the "Sinfonia Sacre" has a slightly broader range of expression. Both occupy a kind of middle ground between some of the eclecticism of the earlier works and the breakthough of new elements and the evolving sonic palette of the last symphonies.

Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony give us detailed and broadly passionate readings that sound well in the contemporary digital recording mode. The inclusion of two more middle-length works, "Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzsky" (1956) and "Dies Natalis" (1967), is a nice bonus.

At the Naxos price and with the detailed, enthusiastic readings of Maestro Schwarz, one could hardly go wrong with this disk. These recordings were originally released on Delos International in the '90s if I am not mistaken. I look forward to his versions of No. 6 and No. 7.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lawrence Moss, "New Paths," Recent Chamber Music from the Octogenarian Composer

The 83-year-old US composer Lawrence Moss shows no signs of slowing down, based on the 2-CD compilation of his recent chamber works, New Paths (Innova 777). In fact quite the contrary. Nor is he converting to a more conservative style of writing, as tends to be current these days. In the composer's words "New paths in old forests. These are not the paths to Neo-Romanticism or any other 'old growth' but rather walks along the trails that lead from Stravinsky and Schoenberg to Varese and Ligeti."

The music certainly reflects those sentiments. One CD is devoted to instrumental chamber music; the second features the solo voice in a variety of contexts. I was most impressed with the music on the first volume; the second took me a bit more to get used to.

Disk One brings to our ears a number of gems. "The Woods" features the Capitol Woodwind Quintet in four lively movements that make use of bird song and a little humor in Moss's brief bowdlerization of the nursery song "Four and Twenty Blackbirds." There is an understandable influence of Messiaen, and yet the music does not sound imitative, instead rather Mossian. The program goes on to present Moss's somewhat quirky modernism in relatively short pieces for solo piano, oboe-viola-piano, trumpet duo, solo flute with electronics and his "String Quartet No. 4," a work that has sonorous brilliance.

The second disk has several more short, interesting instrumental works, two for string duets and one for violin and piano. The bulk of the disc is devoted to songs and song cycles for soprano and percussion, one for two sopranos and piano, and the five-movement "Another Dawn" for soprano and chamber ensemble.

It always has seemed to me that the solo vocal performance of highly involved modernist works constitutes one of the musically most challenging tasks in the Western world. The sopranos in the works represented here certainly are up to the challenge. There were occasions, however, where I thought the voice qualities occasionally seemed over- or under-matched to the music at hand, though perhaps those vocal qualities were what Maestro Moss had in mind. In any case I would like to hear some of these pieces in the hands of other vocalists for comparison. Nevertheless the works themselves hold interest throughout. The three movement "Emily's World" has very interesting two-soprano writing, where close harmonies sounding within the advanced, expanded musical universe as set up by the piano part give the music an almost otherworldly quality.

The set concludes with the sonoric and phraseological gem "Another Dawn," which takes on the serialist counterpoint of classic mid-twentieth century ultra-modernism and converts it to a Mossian poetry of means. The (chamber) orchestration has brilliance and the contrast of the resonantly chambered soprano voice and the texturally diverse chamber group is convincing and dramatically engaging.

So here we are. Lawrence Moss at 83. The music comprises to me a rather essential set for those looking for high modernism and what it has become in our era. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ernesto Cordero, Caribbean Concertos for Guitar and Violin. Romero, Figueroa, I Solisti di Zagreb

I imagine that guitarist Pepe Romero and violinist Guillermo Figueroa were pleased to receive the respective dedications from Puerto Rican composer Ernesto Cordero (b. 1946) for the latter's two Caribbean Concertos. They went on to record the works with I Solisti di Zagreb, which is now available in a new release entitled Caribbean Concertos for Guitar and for Violin (Naxos 8.572707).

The two works, "Concierto Festivo" (2003) for guitar, and "Concertino Tropical" (1998) for violin, sandwich a third concerto, here given its world premier, "Insula: Suite Concertante" (1998), again for violin.

In all cases there is a very fluid interaction between the string orchestra and soloist. This is music that tries (successfully) to capture something of the landscape of island Puerto Rico and its natural and cultural comings and goings. It has some of the strong tonal flavors of Spanish speaking-Latin America and a very sunny disposition that relates to the impressionist composers from across the pond. The lightly textured quality of the string orchestra writing helps the music breathe; both Romero's guitar parts and those for Figueroa's violin heighten the impression of dazzling sunlight and movement over the land.

This is some extraordinarily refreshing music, played with care and joy by the soloists and I Solisti. Ernesto Cordero has created three delightful works that explore and transform his musical heritage into rather brilliant musical energy.

Recommended. A Winter Vacation in a jewel box!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Joly Braga Santos, "Alfama" (and Other Symphonic Works), Alvaro Cassuto Conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Portuguese composer Joly Bragos Santos (1924-1988), judging by the newly released Alfama (Naxos 8.573813), excels in the narrative color-drenched tone-poem of the last century as exemplified in Euro-Mediterranean composers such as Respighi, de Falla, Debussey and Ravel. This is only natural in a ballet score, that is meant to portray musically a particular story-line in ways that are vivid and danceable, and we see this perfectly in the world premiere recording of this Suite from the Ballet Alfama (1956), but it is even so of his later, more modernistic Variations for Orchestra (1976), which is also given its world premiere recording here. There are several disks out in the Naxos series on his symphonies and I have not as yet heard them, so there may be another side to his music as well.

Topping off the program are three equally interesting works, the Elegy in Memory of Vianna da Motta (1948), his Symphonic Overture No. 3 (1954) and his Three Symphonic Sketches (1962). The Royal Scottish National Orchestra performs capably under the baton of Alvaro Cassuto, and the sound staging is good.

Braga Santos most definitely deserves a hearing. This seems like a good place to start, as it has been for me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Arne Nordheim, Epitaffio, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra

Norway, modernism and Arne Nordheim (1931-2010) go together. The composer Nordheim created a body of work that helped put the Scandinavian music scene on our maps from the 1960s through to his passing last year. A retrospective of some of his orchestral gems, aptly titled after his composition Epitaffio has come out (Simax Classics 1318) and is now readily available in the States. This is a happy occasion, tempered of course by our loss of him from this earth. The Oslo Philharmonic under Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Rolf Gupta definitively perform five of his works, from the "Canzona" of 1960 through to the 2003 "Fonos, Three Memorables for Trombone and Orchestra."

This is high modernist brilliance from beginning to end. To hear these pieces well-played on a state-of-the-art sonic stage is to come away quite impressed, indeed.

The Nordeim orchestral universe skillfully employs a wide spectrum of orchestral sonance and color to create sound poetry of great depth, palpable texture and dramatic expressivity.

His music has some of the discursive logic of Edgar Varese, in that the organized unfolding of the orchestral phrases and sectional entrances entails nothing short of a profoundly meaningful and ingeniously constructed series of human utterances, in this case of course musical. Instrumental colors enter and interact with one another in endlessly recombinatory ways. Nordheim is a master of the full orchestra-as-paint to his imaginary canvas.

Every piece stands out as singular and significant. I especially find the 2003 "Fonos" for trombone and orchestra a knockout as performed here by the philharmonic and trombonist Marius Hesby. As the last piece chronologically it is programmed second-to-last, which allows the ear to experience it as a kind of stirring life-finale, with the brief and poignant "Adieu" giving us a touchingly regretful coda to our evening's program.

Those who may have missed Nordheim's music are excellently served with this anthology. Those who have not will find the performances and sequences revelatory and enthralling.

Very much recommended!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

William Grant Still, Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, Wood Notes, John Jeter, Fort Smith Symphony

In this third volume of the orchestral music of William Grant Still (1895-1978) by John Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony (Naxos 8.559676) I found many reasons why Still's music still speaks to us today. As the most prominent Afro-American classical composer of his generation, he does not simply fit into a ready-made category. Listen to the three works on this set and you get Still the melodist, the impressive orchestrator, the impressionist-romantic-Americana voice of originality.

The marvelously evocative "Wood Notes" (1947) (here in its world premiere recording) puts four pastoral vignettes together that draw on the tonality of traditional black America as well as the rural invocation of nature. It is a delight.

The two symphonies represented here (No. 2 from 1937; No. 3 from 1958) similarly evoke folk-ethnic-natural imagery through tone painting of a high order.

This is music that will breathe fresh air into the cobwebs of your typical listening patterns. It is performed with balance and care by Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony. Recommended.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lee Actor, Saxophone Concerto

Anyone familiar at all with jazz knows that the saxophone has in the last 120 years come of age. Yet in the classical field the saxophone figures less often in the scheme of works than might be supposed. This is not the place to examine why that is, but to appreciate its appearance and make note of it as appropriate.

So for example there is a recording out this year of Lee Actor's Saxophone Concerto (Navona 5848). Debra Richtmeyer is the alto saxophone soloist; Kirk Trevor conducts the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. It's essentially a neo-romantic/proto-impressionist work of some lyrical and lively qualities. The solo part is alternatingly sinewy and plaintive, with a slight vibrato which recalls the sound of the saxophone on "Pictures at an Exhibition" and "Le Creation du Monde", or of course Debussy's "Rhapsody for Alto Sax and Orchestra." In other words the sound is a bit enmeshed in jazz sax style of the '20s and '30s. Once one accepts that, there is an engaging charm and memorable melodic thrust to the piece.

The CD contains a number of additional works by Lee Actor. The most attractive are the "Dance Rhapsody" and the "Concerto for Horn and Orchestra," with the latter featuring the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and horn soloist Karol Nitran.

It's cleanly orchestrated, decently played music that hearkens back to the early 20th century with enough economy of means that it does not take on the monumental bloatedness of some typical late romantic works (the latter of which I do appreciate when done well), yet it's not quite neo-classical and it does not fall into a typically modernist camp either. There are some nascent impressionistic elements, and what one could call modernist-tonal-conservative elements.

The music is solid fare, decently performed. If one gets the feeling one has heard similar music before, of course that is a truth. This music has some originality in the details and some heavy ties to early modern tradition in its overall thrust.

It will no doubt please those who like a sort of souffle of earlier pre-modern/modern styles, well crafted. The Saxophone Concerto stands erect in a field where there are not many challengers. The other pieces are solid and welcome additions. This is not paradigm-changing music. It is quite enjoyable in its own way.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Leonardo Balada, Piano Music, Pablo Amoros

Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) has written some extraordinary orchestral music. His solo piano music up until now has been unfamiliar to me. Pablo Amoros performs a cross-section of it spanning Balada's entire career on Piano Music (Naxos 8.572594). In the liner notes Balada makes reference to how he believes the piano as a solo vehicle is somewhat timbrally outmoded in the contemporary compositional scheme of things. Nevertheless in the six works represented on the album (covering the period from 1959 through 2010) he makes a go at carving out musical structures that suit his needs expressively.

The works are neither bravura showpieces nor are they parlor ditties for the well-motivated amateur. Instead they are a glimpse into the melodic-harmonic mind-as-workshop of Maestro Balada. Forms take shape, ideas come to the fore, concepts are worked out and in the process he leaves us with music that is as expressive as it is at times quirkily cerebral. In a way his solo music reminds me of parallel works by Carl Neilsen, or some of those by Heitor Villa-Lobos. They at first seem diffuse, disjointed (at least they did to me), the form and logic taking shape in the mind only after fairly considerable listening time.

It is music that can have a surreal, abstract air, for example in his reconstructive collaging on "Transparency of Chopin's First Ballade" (1979). Snatches of Chopin's theme come in and out of play in a matrix of transformed transformations. At other times a present-day equivalent of baroque line weaving and quasi-counterpoint come to the forefront, only modernized. Some of the music has a stream-of-consciousness "fantasy" quality, with mood and disjointed narrative dictating what elements appear in succession.

In the end you get a wealth of music and a side of Balada that extends and complements the orchestral side. Some of the music is difficult (to play and to grasp), some of it quite disarmingly straightforward. All of it is interesting and, I might add, well played by Pablo Amoros.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mimi Stillman, Charles Abramovic, "Odyssey: American Premieres for Flute and Piano"

The flute and piano duo offers the modern composer a sound-color spectrum of somewhat unparalleled variety when played by accomplished artists. Such is the case with flautist Mimi Stillman and pianist Charles Abramovic, and their Odyssey: American Premieres for Flute and Piano (Innova 2-CD 814). Eleven composers and the same number of corresponding, fairly brief works fill the program. A few are for solo flute, the rest for duo. Together they provide some noteful vehicles for the artistry of Ms. Stillman and the flawless accompanying work of Mr. Abramovic. Andrew Rudin, Richard Danielpour and a host of lesser-known composers provide contrasting tonal universes ranging from folk allusion to modernist agility. Each piece has interest.

In the hands of Mimi Stillman these works ring out. She has a very ravishing tone, masterful control over the full range and articulatory possibilities of her instrument. She and Charles Abramovic realize an overarching concept of the compositional whole of each work. There are some brilliant musical contrasts in play throughout, and in all cases the Stillman-Abramovic duo triumphs.

The sensual, tactile riches contained in performances like these, the architectural approach to each work. and the expressive virtuosity that never overshines outside the parameters of the compositions make for a program that will afford listeners virtually endless pleasure. That is most certainly how the music affected me. Not a moment is wasted! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Boris Yoffe, "The Song of Songs," with the Rosamunde Quartett and The Hilliard Ensemble

There is a group of contemporary composers, headed by Arvo Part, who have some rootedness in early music. The music tends to be thoroughly (post)modern, yet there is something of the ambiance, timbre set and periodicity of Medieval-Renaissance and sometimes early Baroque music.

One of these, judging by the new release The Song of Songs (ECM New Series 2174 4764426), is Boris Yoffe. The composer grew up in Russia, emigrated to Israel and then Germany, where he studied with Wolfgang Rihm.

His ECM debut presents a modified sort of song cycle "The Song of Songs." It deftly alternates and conjoins the Rosamunde String Quartett with the quartet of vocalists well-known as the Hilliard Ensemble. At times the strings sound like a consort of viols from the Renaissance. The vocal configuration of countertenor, tenor, tenor and baritone have a sound that of course recalls early music as well. Yoffe puts these possibilities into play in a way that has one foot in the distant past and one foot in, if you will, the future.

The music has modern harmonic-melodic elements but at the same time hearkens back. The use of space and a reverberant, cathedral-like sonic stage reinforces that impression. This is a composer who thrives in the ECM production situation. There's something of Hindemith in there, but transposed both forwards and backwards, slowed down at times to a maximum of contemplative near-quiescence, a Morton-Feldman-like feeling of timelessness from another age. Ours.

Beautiful music, original music, this is.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Zimmermann, "Die Soldaten": A Modern Opera Masterwork Done to A Turn by Bernhard Kontarsky and Staatsorchester Stuttgart

Bernard Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) was a composer of some renown in Europe during his lifetime but got less attention here in the States at the time, compared with Boulez or Stockhausen. Yet several import recordings made their way over here and were appreciated by the devoted modernist cotery of the era. His untimely death in 1970 more or less put a period to his influence here. But not permanently.

His most impressive full-scale work surely is the opera Die Soldaten (2-CD Warner Classic/Teldec 2564 66708-0). The newly issued domestic release we'll look at today, a version by Bernard Kontarsky, Chor des Staatstheaters Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart and soloists should go some way in cementing his reputation here.

The recording was originally released in the '90s, but should be much easier to find in the States now. It is an excitingly expressive, spirited and well executed performance by all concerned. Credit should go to Maestro Kontarsky, who is one of the very best of the new music conductors active today. The performance here, the second recording of the work extant, has a remarkable flow to it. The wide intervalic skips and rhythmically irregular serialist-edge-of-tonality vocal lines combine with the vividly imagistic orchestral and choral parts in ways that make sense of Zimmerman's music. Everything must be phrased as natural sounding and grouped according to the logic of the harmonic-melodic arch of the score for the music to work. Kontarsky has gotten a magical result that brings the music to life like one composite being, an eloquently speaking, naturally breathing, remarkable music-making creature of art. Deserving credit should also be given to the soloists, choir and orchestra. They are magnificent. But it's plain to hear that Kontarsky has spent painstaking time in rehearsal, working on the fine points and nuances of the score. He brings out the best in the performers.

As you listen a number of times to the result of such careful and expressive execution, you begin to appreciate what a musical masterpiece Die Soldaten is.

This is a marvelously ultra-modern work. The Kontarsky version will be hard to beat. Get this one by all means if you have a liking for the utopian new music in its classic phase.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thierry Lancino, "Requiem," Inbal, Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France

Not having been acquainted previously with the compositions of Thierry Lancino, I was pleasantly rewarded lately by listening a number of times to his dramatic Requiem (Naxos) as performed by the massed forces of Choer de Radio France, Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France, soloists and conductor Eliahu Inbal.

It's a 70-plus minute journey into an expressively modern treatment of the requiem form. The soloists express themselves with musicality and passion, the choir and orchestra are artfully served with a score that bubbles over like a cauldron of molten fire at times, and other times indulges in pianissimo murmurs that fit the sorrowful expression of the text by the solo vocalists. The orchestra reinforces and underscores the choir and soloists, as is fitting in such a work. A kind of murky gloominess in the score at times is virtually unremitting and perhaps that is exactly as Lancino intended, as temperamentally fitting for a requiem. The singers and choir emerge out of an often muddy orchestral oppressiveness that creates a powerfully unified mood, characterizes the work and sets it apart. And I don't mean that as necessarily a negative. It makes for a different work than otherwise might be the case these days. It gives it a unique quality.

The piece as a whole has a late romantic largeness combined with high modernity-Bergian dynamic sonority and occasionally an Orffian chanting insistence.

The performance is spirited and excellent. Lancino's music has undoubtedly some considerable merit. I would most definitely like to hear more of it. If I did not respond to this work with keen absorption, it may have something to do with my current mood. I appreciate it on a cerebral level, but it is not grabbing my emotions yet. Some works take many listens before that comes about, so I reserve some of my feelings for now. It is undoubtedly a work and a performance that merit the attention of modern music lovers. At the Naxos budget price you get further incentive to envelop yourself in its dramatic sounds.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rautavaara, "Marjatta the Lowly Maiden," Works for Children's Choir

The Tapiola Choir under Pasi Hyokki presents a program of Rautavaara's works for children's choir on Marjatta the Lowly Maiden (Ondine 1169-2). The Marjatta mystery play and the Children's Mass (Lapsimessu) form substantial bookends for the program, between which are a number of shorter incidental works. Sonorically delightful acapella sounds occupy a good portion of the program, with effective selected instrumental parts dotting "Marjatta" and a moving string orchestra part (by the Tapiola Youth Symphony Orchestra) sharing space with the choir on the "Children's Mass."

The choir sounds lovely, the bookend works give us rich examples of Rautavaara's 1970's style, and the incidental works shed additional light and give pleasure. It's an unusual but very enjoyable program, and should appeal to a wide spectrum of music lovers.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bruno Maderna, Piano Concertos/Quadrivium, Carlo Miotto, Aldo Orvieto

Since his sudden death in 1973 we may have been guilty of forgetting about composer Bruno Maderna's music just a bit. Yet his signal achievements in the thick of high modernism, and his position of pre-eminence among a small group of the most highly regarded Italian composers of his generation should have ensured him an enduring reputation.

All is not lost. There was a period of reaction for a time, where high modernism declined in fashion and his reputation suffered along with many others of his era. Yet his music never had a dogmatic quality. It drew on early music as well as it looked forward to a futurist avant-topia. At any rate he is a master figure in the music of his day. And things may be changing in how we perceive him and the modernist period in general.

As if to remind us of what an appealing composer he is, a new recording of his Piano Concertos and the Quadrivium piece (Naxos 8.572642) has emerged of late. On it pianists Aldo Orvieto and Fausto Bongelli (the latter for the two-piano pieces), the percussion ensemble Gruppo 40.6, and Orchestra della Fondazione 'Arena di Verona' under conductor Carlo Miotto put together a program of Maderna convering both early (1942-48) and later (1969) phases of his ouevre.

The early Piano Concerto (1942) in both a one and two piano version are given here, the second a world premier recording, and it shows those of us who may have forgotten, how his early work has an appealing modern-lyrical poignancy. The second version increases the sonority of the piano part and so is a most welcome addition to this disc. The Concerto for Two Pianos and Instruments (1948) sees Maderna moving forward to a more 12-tone oriented style with the percussion ensemble understandably supplying sound coloration aspects that set this work apart from the earlier concerto. Quadrivium (1969) is Maderna in full flower, a writer of a poetic quality, with mystery and an impressively evocative sonority. This is the Maderna of genius, beyond serialist dogma, a supreme painter of sounds.

The performances are excellent. The program fleshes out a picture of Maderna as a vital force within the music of his time. This recording is a very good one for those who don't know his music. It is equally stimulating for those that do.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Matthias Kronsteiner, "Modified," Music for Bassoon

The bassoon has its many charms. It has a range of sounds all its own which, in the right hands, forms a singular timbral pallete of wide dimensions. For a time it was called upon to play the clown, especially in some late 19th century-early 20th century orchestral works. Those days are gone.

Matthis Kronsteiner is a bassoonist of stature, great facility and marvelous tone. He presents a recital of contemporary and near-contemporary compositions for bassoon alone, with small chamber configurations and with electronics on Modified, a part of the performer series on the new Composers Concordance label (005). Pieces by Villa-Lobos, David Lang, Gene Pritsker and others form a sequence that sets off Kronsteiner's virtuosity with a brilliance that keeps the ear continually attuned. In contemporary fashion the classical genre rubs shoulders with jazz, improvisation and rock, which is only fitting.

The contemporary bassoon is no jester. As incarnated in the presence of Matthias Kronsteiner, the bassoon is an eminently effective instrumental conduit of the best of today's concert music. That's clear from Modified.

Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, The Christmas Story

There have been a number of recordings over the years of the chronology of the Christmas Pageant as portrayed in song. Of course this is an old practice originating in England and elsewhere in the Nativity Play musical-dramatical festivities from at least medieval times onwards. Since we covered a Paul Hillier/Ars Nova Copenhagen recording two days ago, it is fitting that we turn to another more specific to the season. Maestro Hillier, ANC and the Theatre of Voices have gotten together to create A Christmas Story (Harmonia Mundi). As one might expect this is a definitive choral depiction of the story as portrayed in early music masterpieces and some from a little later as well. So you get plainchant, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," through the birth songs, the "We Three Kings" song and so on. It is wonderful music, mostly familiar to anyone who knows the tradition, with a few that may be unfamiliar, at least to listeners in the States, and anon.

There is light instrumental support as called for, but the ravishing vocals of the twin ensembles are the central focus. And the songs. This is first-rate fare. I am happy personally to have it. It will give you something of substance to lighten the dark nights.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

David Lang, "This Was Written By Hand" for Solo Piano

David Lang has increasingly struck me as one Bang On A Can composer who is especially bent upon forging a minimalist/post-minimalizt language all his own. The solo piano opus This Was Written By Hand (Canteloupe 21073) puts that forward somewhat emphatically. The album consists of the 13-minute title cut and eight shorter "Memory Pieces."

The title cut (2003) has a very pianistic left hand-right hand split, the right hand repeating and developing a central melody line, the left hand repeating and varying a figuration accompaniment for the most part. It is lyrical, reflective and appealing in its spare but musically impactful utterance.

The "Memory Pieces" (1992-1997) have a bit more in the way of motoristic movement, sometimes marimba-istic figuration that is more typically classic minimalist. Yet it is not linear, post-African trance groove that is coming out of the figurations for the most part. For the first piece it's a matter of rolling wide-interval trills (to stretch a term) that together form an overarching melodic movement that has a slower, more majestic trajectory. The second piece calls for rapidly articulated arpeggiations that again don't have groove as the intent, but rather verticalized harmonic sequences. Piece three is a kind of largo. Piece four slows the trill idea down and makes each pulse a more fortissimo chordal block. Number five is mercurial, a kind of drumming on the piano with Lang's own sort of rudiment-like execution. Six slows things down again for some delicate interlocking sequences of expressive meditation. Seven is a whirlwind of rapid cycles of piano drumming. The final piece returns in some ways to the feeling of the first, a kind of slower series of related melodic cycles, this time in the middle range of the piano, with punctuations in the upper and lower registers.

Pianist Andrew Zolinsky realizes the parts with a restrained poeticism that seems right for these two works.

This is music that keeps my interest while playing upon the more positive emotional affects that the solo piano has often evoked from the days of Mozart onwards. It should find a good number of adherents, I would think. And it is some of David Lang's most intimate and appealing music to date.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier, "A Bridge of Dreams": Modern Choral Music from the Pacific Rim

Paul Hillier happens to be the world's premier choral conductor to my way of thinking. As principal conductor and musical director of the choral group Ars Nova Copenhagen he shows himself as champion of new music that has been heavily influenced by early and/or archaic musical forms, an important trend from the last half of the 20th century through to today. The new CD A Bridge of Dreams (Ars Nova 6.220597) puts Hillier and the marvelous choral group in a rather wondrous zone for a program of music that shows the influences of both the classical past and the East Pacific. Subtitled a cappella Music from the Pacific Rim, for this CD the idea is that all composers-works represented here have important multiple associations with the coastal Pacific. All the composers hail from Australia, New Zealand, California, or China, respectively, and all in some way or another address Eastern Pacific thematics.

Lou Harrison's Mass for Saint Cecilia's Day is a work from his later period (1983) utilizing transformations of Gregorian Chant, resituated in part within Chinese and Balinese tonality. Ann Boyd's enchanted A Bridge of Dreams is based on an anonymous Medieval Japanese Woman's text of the same name. Jack Body's Five Lullabies have a strong medieval polyphonic influence as well as traditional Chinese elements. Ross Edwards combines psalm texts with aboriginal bird names for Sacred Kingfisher Psalms. Finally Chinese composer Liu Sola gives us The Seafarer, a suite from his opera The Afterlife of Li Jiantong.

All of this music has an ambiant quality, thanks in part to the pieces themselves, to Paul Hillier's/Ars Nova's highly melifluous renditions, and to the very resonant recording space of St. Paul's Church, Copenhagen. There is a constancy that is both post- and pre- minimalist, interestingly. These are very beautiful works, beautifully done. There is timelessness conveyed in the music, a confluence of past, present, and, perhaps, future. Don't neglect this one. A Bridge of Dreams may find you spanning the length of one somnolescently. . . repeatedly.

Friday, November 25, 2011

John Carollo, Transcendence in the Age of War

John A. Carollo is an American composer that minds (and mines) modernist roots to forge an expressive personal style. I reviewed his Starry Nights on this blog last July 16, 2011. Now for a look at an earlier release, Transcendence in the Age of War (Navona 5817).

This one covers a wide spectrum of chamber and orchestral forms.

Carollo has a real knack for constructing melody/ensemble lines that have a modern ring to them and tend to soar expressively. This is quite true of the two short pieces for string orchestra, Desiderio and Let Thy Mind Be Still, which like Starry Night from the second album have a kind of Ivesian rootedness combined with a Carollian uniqueness. There is a denser, more active texture to String Quintet No. 1 for 10-String Guitar and String Quartet, but the inventive line knack is again at the forefront.

Fear of Angst for Flute, Cello and Piano has more chromatic expansiveness and a more expanded harmonic range for the first movement. It is also very well conceived. Movement two is quite beautiful, with striking pitch-timbre contrasts between flute and cello, the piano mediating somewhere at the center of the sound. The final movement has a more desolate quality, then some turbulent final bars.

The title piece, Transcendence in the Age of War for two pianos has a dense, restless, endlessly modulating quality appropriate to the subject matter.

So there we are. A very well played set of interesting compositions, some rather sublime, some rather edgy, all showing the inventive talents of John Carollo. If you can only get one of his two CDs, Starry Night would get my vote for its beautiful string pieces. Transcendence in the Age of War comes in a close second. Here is a composer of today that deserves your attention.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Harley Gaber, In Memoriam 2010

The mature Harley Gaber as composer favors long continuous sound matrixes of electro-acoustic poeticism. His The Winds Rise in the North from the seventies was an extraordinarily dissonant and intense piece that involved continuously modifying tone blocks of strings. I saw My Mother Ascending Mount Fuji (Innova) was a long-term project that used more consonant soundblocks and electro-acoustics combined with conventional instruments to create a mystical sort of rarified equivalent of high altitude in sound (see my review in the July 13th, 2010 posting of Gapplegate Music Review--

The new release In Memorium 2010 (Innova 243) was commissioned by Dan Epstein in memory of Nancy Epstein. It is an elegaic six-movement electro-acoustic tone poem of eerie beauty. There are the continuous sound blocks again, but the sonics are more drenched (to my ears) in the sounds one might hear in an underwater world (to Mt. Fuiji's air). It is a strangely intriguing, ever shifting world he creates, the musical equivalent of a set of memories recalled as if in a dream.

It is in its own way an electro-acoustic near-masterpiece of our times. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Maki Ishii Live; Ryan Scott with Esprit Orchestra; Alex Pauk, Conductor

The Japanese composers of the 20th century who did the most, to my mind, to bring together modern classical orchestral music and traditional Japanese music: Takemitsu, Mayuzumi and Maki Ishii. It is to the latter that we turn today, in a live performance of three of his gems by Ryan Scott, percussion, with Esprit Orchestra under Alex Pauk. Maki Ishii Live (Innova 809) is a well-captured performance first aired on Canada's CBC Radio. Three Ishii percussion concerti are represented. They have some very intricate solo percussion parts which Scott plays from memory.

So it's not just that Ryan Scott has memorized the parts, of course; he plays them with musicality and fire. The orchestra sounds well too. These are works that belong to the later period of Ishii's output when he was especially concerned with incorporating traditional Japanese elements. "Saidoko (Demon)" was completed in 1989, "Concertante for Marimba," 1988, and "South-Fire-Summer" in 1992. All three have an intensive dynamic between percussion virtuosity & fire, and orchestral luminosity. They are excellent examples of Ishii's mature style and are played here with brightness, hard-edged thrust and a mastery of tone-color blending.

This is one of those recordings that SOUNDS great. There is presence and a sound staging that translate well to the speakers-in-a-room world of home listening. First-rate music, first-rate performance, first-rate audio quality.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Duo Gazzana, "Five Pieces" by Silvestrov plus Music by Takemitsu, Hindemith, and Janacek

The Italian sisters Natascia (violin) and Raffaella (piano) Gazzana turn in a rather stunning debut on Five Pieces (ECM New Series B0014656-02). They tackle Takemitsu's "Distance de fee", Hindemith's 1935 "Sonata in E", Janacek's "Sonata", and Valentin Silvestrov's "Five Pieces" (2004).

Takemitsu's work was written when he was under a marked Messiaen influence but it has a strongly poetic quality that Duo Gazzana brings out nicely. The Hindemith has the harmonic movement, sometimes quiet grandeur and motor drive typical of the composer at his best. The Janacek is a work of some passion, rolling dramatics and east-meets-modern sensibility. The duo does not overemphasize the dramatic-romantic element and instead gives a well-balanced reading. Silvestrov's "Five Pieces" compares favorably with the rest of the program, in turns tender, gently propulsive, and largo-istically expressive.

The combination of Manfred Eichner's full-depth production and the sensitive, lyrically ravishing phrasings of Duo Gazzana make for a rather heady, subtly absorbing program. These are some wonderful works and they get an especially moving performance at the hands of the sister duo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Orchestra, Baltic Portraits

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra visit five greater- or lesser-known contemporary composers from the Baltic region and five corresponding orchestral works on Baltic Portraits (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Media 946). Paavo Jarvi conducts his way through the works with a good feel for orchestral detail and a full-fledged sense of the whole of each work.

Arvo Part's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" is the one work many will have probably heard in one or more versions. CSO gives us a full, heart-felt reading that veers more to the side of warmth rather than elevator-shaft spookiness.

Two major symphonies act as bookends to the program. Aulis Sallinen's Symphony No. 8 has a sort of contemporary saga quality, with a wealth of melodically inventive passages that engage with a narrative quality. There is a boldness of rhythmic dynamics and a neo-post-romantic discursive unfolding. Lepo Sumera's Symphony No. 6 has contrasting blocks of mysterioso pianissimo orchestral murmurs bumping against more agitated, complex sound bursts.

The shorter works help provide variety and set off the longer pieces well. Erkki-Sven Tuur's "Fireflower" has post-impressionist shimmer and very evocative sound-sculpturing. Esa-Pekka Salonen (more known of course at this point for his conducting) provides in "Gambit" a sure-footed orchestral conception with soundscaped tone-painting that make for one of the more intriguing pieces on the program.

All-in-all Jarvi and the CSO do well in presenting us with quite respectable performances of works that deserve the hearing they get. I suspect that none of these versions are definitive at this point, but they do reveal a most interesting set of sonic experiences I feel I am the better for hearing. Worth a listen!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jason Vieaux Plays Piazzolla

Guitarist Jason Vieaux, bandoneanist Julien Labro and the chamber orchestra A Far Cry make beautiful music together on their recent recording of the music of Piazzolla (Azica 71270). It's a nice program of three works for varying lineups. Las 4 estaciones portenas (The 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires) (arranged by Labro for guitar, accordion and chamber orchestra) brings the full force into play for an elegant dip into Piazzolla's inimitable brightly colored tango palatte. The bandoneon gets the lion's share of the melodic pie until the fourth movement, when Jason Vieaux also holds forth overtly, but the whole work is a delight and the orchestral parts have genuine dash.

The Concerto for Guitar and Bandoneon, "Hommage a Liege" begins with some worthy guitar parts, played elgantly by Mr. Vieaux. Bandoneon and orchestra join guitar in the charming second movement, where the guitar work again shines brightly. Piazzolla's melodic fluidity is at a very high point, as it is throughout. The final movement launches a very fetching tango that allows the orchestra to hold forth along with the soloists.

The final Histoire du Tango (History of the Tango) (arr. for accordion and guitar) has some suitably jaunty passagework for both the principal soloists. It's an interesting suite that brings out some very translucent playing from Vieaux and characteristic accordion melodising, not without virtuoso brilliance from both players.

I cannot imagine anyone interested in Piazzolla not reveling in this one. The guitar work is brilliantly sonic, the bandoneon shines, and the orchestra glows in some typically infectious music from the master of "new tango." Guitar-lovers will find Vieaux at the peak of his considerable expressive powers. This is some great feather-light music that will no doubt cheer you up, so do not expect anything ponderously heavy. Unless you are determined to feel morose or you hate the tango, do not hesitate! Enjoy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Martin Bresnick, "Caprichos Enfaticos" for Piano and Percussion Quartet

The 30-minute work Caprichos Enfaticos: Los Disastres de la Guerra (Cantaloupe 21075) is a meditation on the famed anti-war etchings of Francisco Goya. DVD projections of the Goya imagery are to be introduced in the course of a live performance of the eight movements of this work. Pianist/keyboardist Lisa Moore and So Percussion as a quartet give us a stirring performance, sans projections, of course. But though this may be somewhat programmatic music, it is music to hear, first and foremost, so the lack of visual correspondence is not a major factor.

There is an episodic, literary quality to the work which reminds me a little of some of George Crumb's chamber music. For example, there is a movement where the drums pound out the rhythmic ostinato from Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War," but it becomes disjointed and disrupted as the piano interjects expressive chordal rejoiners as if to represent the forces that do not directly engage in the battles, those who perhaps do not whole heartedly approve of the carnage, or perhaps the victims?

It is well performed and well staged for the CD medium. Ms. Moore plays spiritedly and the rhythmic versus a-rhythmic elements balance nicely in her hands. She doubles on a harmonium in the later movements and gives out with a kind of earthy chorale folksiness. Similary the So Percussion Quartet provides a commanding performance of their part.

It is music as sound painting, a sort of "Pictures at an Exhibition" narrative style transposed to the post-modernist present. It is a work of power and a meditation on war and its horrors. If the music does not quite convey the macabre imagery and indignant disgust of the Goya etchings, I suppose we should not expect a literal correspondence.

What it is certainly bears hearing. Martin Bresnick writes music that stands out, that speaks with a grammar and syntax much his own. At this juncture in our history the subject matter is as timely as ever.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ensemble Adventure, "Octandre": Six Composers Write Chamber Pieces Inspired By Varese's Masterpiece

An unusual recording on tap today: the chamber Ensemble Adventure performs (Ars Musici 232211) Edgar Varese's modern masterpiece Octandre, followed by compositions in the spirit of Varese composed by six contemporary composers: Diego Luzuriaga, Thomas Bruttger, Coriun Aharonian, Mariano Etkin, Graciela Paraskevaidis, and Rolf Riehm. I am not familiar with these composers, but what they do and how Ensemble Adventure realizes them in performance is an experience that brings a kind of enlightenment coupled with pleasure. Varese is (was) not a composer given to writing music that espouses conventional western harmony, of course. In his music structures are fundamental to the makeup of a particular composition, especially with "Octandre". How those structures relate to one another is the important thing, like a set of related buildings in a city block. The movement in and out of pitch centers or tonality is not really relevant. It is music of an architectural sort, and a wonderful thing for the development of modernity.

The six composers represented here take the structural, architectural idea of Varese's "Octandre" and run with it, to each his or her own. So you hear "Octandre" performed with a kind of lingering care, then you hear the six compositions that bear tributary resemblance to that work.

The performances are excellent, the music very stimulating, and the recording bright. It's a great idea, greatly realized. Those who love the high modernism of Varese will find this CD a real treat.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jason Kao Hwang, Spontaneous River: "Symphony of Souls"

Jason Kao Hwang is not afraid to do something new. Improvising violinist, composer, conductor, he's formed Spontaneous River, an orchestra of improvising artists. There are currently 38 string players. Jason on solo violin plus 14 violinists, including Sarah Bernstein; five violists; five cellists, including Daniel Levin and Tomas Ulrich; six contrabassists, including Michael Bisio and Ken Filiano; seven guitarists, including Dom Minasi and James Keepnews; plus Andrew Drury at the drums, making a total of 39 instrumentalists. The point is that these are some of the most actively interesting and accomplished string improvisers on the New York scene.

They join together to play Maestro Hwang's 11 movement composition Symphony of Souls (Mulatta 022). I am deliberately posting this review on my modern classical site because I think it's important that this work be heard by new jazz improv conoisseurs but also those who follow and appreciate contemporary classical works from the present day. I believe that both groups with their overlaps can well appreciate what is going on in this music, given repeated listens and concentrated attention.

What then of the music? It has composed modern orchestral sections; it has some flat-out ultra-modern jazz orchestralities, it has opportunities for the collective aggregate of musicians to improvise together freely in various combinations, and it has passages where the written and the improvised work together in contrasting and synthesizing ways.

The sum total musical impression the work makes in this recording is of a free adventure, a virtually limitless but conceptually consistent exploration of the various possibilities such an ensemble presents. There are open improvisational sections where the entrances and exits and the nature of those musically are guided by Hwang's conductions. The personal stamp of the improvisers' styles are an important part of the sound. Since I am quite familiar with some of these players I can recognize their improvisatory input. But even those I am not that familiar with help tailor the total sound for a rather unprecedented result. This piece performed by another group of improvisors would have the same sign posts but the results in the way the signposts are made to sound and the manner of the collective improvised sections would undoubedly sound different. From performance to performance even with the same group there would be variations in the total effect. And that's good!

There are cadenza-like improvisations from Jason Hwang, atmospheric string writing of tonal clusters and chorale-like blocks of sound that float as if in space, rhythmically driven ostinatoes, bluesy lines with various improvisations coming into play, complex color-texture sound events with particular improvisers soloing over them, pure improvisatory excursions with a great deal of atmospheric ambiance, rocking density, lovely cacaphonies of multi-expressions in a free zone, tutti motives that emerge from primal chaos, quiet passages of great beauty, pizzicato deluges of cascading pitches, smaller groupings of various improvisers providing a moment of interesting contrast, moments when drummer Andrew Drury shines forth, suspending soundclouds of complexely textured tones. . . .

In short this is complex, engaging music that covers much ground. It fills the interstices between new improvisatory music, modern jazz and avant orchestral-compositional practices. And it does so in ways that enthrall, excite, agitate and make tranquil, intrigue and overwhelm, and open up passages to new soundworlds.

It is the sort of music that takes time to assimilate and appreciate. It is, I believe, a milestone in the improvisatory-compositional nexuses we see coming together in this new century. The exceptional talents and sensitivities of Spontaneous River make that so, as does the imaginative and executional excellence of Jason Kao Hwang. Let there be more of this! In the meantime, do not miss this music if you want to have a feeling for, and appreciation of what's going on in the current decade!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Azerbaijani Piano Concertos, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Soloists

The modern concert music of Azerbaijan does not often find its way to the west. There was a recent Naxos disk of the music of Amirov (see my review posting of April 9, 2010 at gapplegatemusicreview. and a few others, but not much else that I know of.

So the present release Azerbaijani Piano Concertos (Naxos 8.572666) is most welcome. It's the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky, with alternating piano soloists F. Badalbeyli and M. Adigezalzade, working their way through two full concertos and three shorter pieces.

The music reflects the cultural influences to be felt in the region in the 20th and 21st centuries. Much of it has an appealing minor tonality that is part of the heritage of eastern/mideastern traditional music, but there is also a Tchaikovskian-Rachmaninovian strain to be heard and in some pieces the influences of early modernity. Amirov and Nazirova's "Concerto After Arabian Themes" (1957) has much of the romantic-meets-mid-eastern flavor alluded to above. Adigezalov's Concerto No. 4 (1994) continues in that vein with a bit more modern elements. The three shorter, single-movement works are pleasing, with Guliyev's "Gaytagi" (1958/1980) generating the most excitement.

It is a collection of music that doesn't hit home as world-class singularity. It does give you an interesting view of what some Azerbaijani composers have been doing. And the performances are good. Those who like a little exoticism will find it here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Andras Schiff Plays Robert Schumann's Piano Music on "Geistervariationen"

Robert Schumann is not a modern composer, obviously. But I include this recording on the blog today because it involves high-romantic pianism played with the sort of renewed attention to the notes and phrasing that sounds modern. Pianist Andras Schiff plays some of Schumann's most ambitious and moving solo piano works on Geistervariationen (ECM New Series 2-CDs B0016115-02) in such a way that you hear clearly the phrasing and fully realized note values that Schumann intended. Truth be told, I have heard many performances of these works where the sustain pedal and an overarching dash of passion make up for lack of precision. Andras Schiff brings the MUSIC to our ears minus the overwrought expression, though his playing does not lack warmth and drive, and with the keen architectural attention to detail that allows us to hear the melodic-harmonic brilliance of the music.

It's a double CD with plenty of room for many of Schumann's best works, "Papillons," the C Major Fantasy, the Opus 11 Piano Sonata, Kinderszenen, Waldszenen and his final work, the Geistervariationem.

Andras Schiff is a remarkable pianist. Listening to this set, it is as if you are hearing these pieces for the first time. Highly recommended--even for those who are not confirmed Schumann-lovers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Toshio Hosokawa, "Landscapes," for Chamber Orchestra and Sho

The Munich Chamber Orchestra under Alexander Liebreich and Mayumi Miyata on the Japanese mouth organ, the sho, tackle four compelling Toshio Hosokawa compositions spanning the last two decades on Landscapes (ECM New Series B0016073-02). "Cloud and Light" (2008), "Sakura fur Otto Tomek" (2008) "Ceremonial Dance" (2000), and "Landscape V" (1993), are given lingeringly detailed interpretations.

Hosokawa's music combines the long sounds of Japanese ancient ceremonial Gagaku music and other traditional forms with the modern sound-coloristic, soundscape approaches that are an important aspect of contemporary concert music. It all works convincingly and movingly on Landscapes. Based on this program Hosokowa stands alongside Takemitsu, Mayuzumi and Ishii as an important modern Japanese composer who works with tradition in innovative ways.

It is music to contemplate, linger over, revel in. It is a very excellent example of the vital compatibility of tradition and modernism in the contemporary music world. Hosokawa shows us as he puts forward this series of tone-essays that, under the masterfully sensitive baton of Alexander Liebreich, his music is one of the most convincing new developments in modern concert music in this decade. By all means give it a listen!

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Pacifica Quartet: String Quartets by Dimitri Shostakovitch and His Contemporaries (The Soviet Experience, Volume 1)

Bela Bartok and Dmitri Shostakovitch created a series of string quartets that hold their own today as singular masterpieces of that genre in the 20th Century. There are others too, of course. But nowhere else is the sublimity of the late Beethoven quartets so rivaled.

There is a new recording of the middle-period Shostakovitch quartets (nos. 6-8 of the 15 total) The Soviet Experience, Volume One (Cedille, 2-CDs 90000 127). The Pacifica Quartet play these and, for good measure, Miaskovsky's Quartet No. 13. The title of this set is understandable, yet perhaps a bit ironic. Stalin and his Social Realist minions hounded Shostakovitch through the bulk of his career for his modernism, which they deemed bourgeois and "formalist". Time and again in his more publicly visible symphonic and operatic premiers he was taken to task. Seemingly with the Quartets he defiantly proceeded to develop the music as he saw fit. And perhaps because the quartet premiers were less a public occasion the apparachniks had less to say about who could play them and when. In any case this music exists almost in spite of the "Soviet Experience," so the title is not a straightforward one.

What counts however is the music and its performance. The Pacifica Quartet do a marvelous job to bring out the excitement of the brio passages and the contemplative, tender sadness of the slower movements. This is a very fine performance of these quartets, one of the best I've heard, if not THE best. The Miaskovsky No. 13 is well played too. It may not be quite at the level of the Shostavovitch works but it sets them off well and provides an interesting contrast.

I hope the Pacifica Quartet go on to record the rest of the Shostakovitch cycle. For now we can be thankful that this recording of the middle works is with us. It is a must-hear!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Music For The Zombie Apocalypse: Naxos' Gothic, Macabre and Chilling Anthology for Halloween and After

I generally shy away from anthologies with a particular theme. If it has an interesting mix that sets a theme off well, however, I take notice. Such an item is Naxos of America's Music For The Zombie Apocalypse, a rather bizarre mix of gothic dark side medieval-to-romantic classic gems and modern avant-eerieness, well suited to a zombie inferno and so a great choice for scaring the heck out of trick-or-treaters or putting the psycho-frosting on your Halloween party cake.

What's interesting and fun about this particular set (which runs almost two-hours time) is that it avoids the classical cliches of the season to dig deeper into the death-in-life zombie horror possibilities in the repertoire. Fune-orial requiem excerpts from Faure, Berlioz & Mozart, chant, minor-mode glass harmonica other-worldly-ness and haunted early-music counterpoint mix with the avant horror latent in works by Penderecki, Part, Schnittke, Gorecki, Varese and Lutoslawski.

Right now you can grab this one as a fine-sounding download at a great price. This Spring it will be out as a CD. Check the Naxos link for more info. I whole-heartedly. . . but wait, I am missing my internal organs, arghghghghg!!! ....I most certainly recommend you give yourself a fine set of nitemares with this set!! It's different enough that you can raise the hair on the back of many necks with it. Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (Abridged), Naxos Audiobook

Goethe's Faust has had a huge impact on both musical culture and the Western legacy at large. So it seems fitting that we mention a rather wonderful dramatic enactment of the work on a new Naxos Audiobook (0068). It's abridged, which is a fine thing since a full version would last a veritable eternity. In effect Naxos Audiobooks has done for Faust what some of the classic London recordings of the '60s did for opera. It conceives of the soundstage and special potential of the modern recorded medium and how they can heighten appreciation for the work in ways that the stage or the book format cannot.

So this production has very well conceived sound effects, music, voice alteration and excellent dramatic recitation by the actor-reciters. Listen straight through and you get a vivid experience of the Faust drama in ways you would not get in any other form. The English translation is melifluous and not stilted, and the recitation is terrific.

Anyone who has appreciated the various settings of Faust by Gounod, Berlioz, Schumann, etc., will revel in the full drama enacted in the spirit Goethe intended.

Of course this is a long work even in its abridged form. The ideal way to experience it first hand is in this audiobook. It makes what could easily be a bit of an ordeal an exciting and sonorously delightful experience, if you are a person of some patience.

Highly recommended. Paste this URL in your browser window to find out more or order a copy for yourself:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Busoni, Doktor Faust: Sir Adrian Boult and a Stellar Cast Do A Bang-Up Job in This Historic Recording

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a key transitional composer who bridged the gulf that opened between the romantic and modern-expressionist schools. His piano pieces are revered by connoisseurs. Then there is a major opera, Doktor Faust, left nearly finished at his death in 1924.

Noted conductor Sir Adrian Boult put together an abridged concert version of the work for BBC and recorded it in 1959 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra/Choir and an impressive cast of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Richard Lewis, Ian Wallace, Heather Harper and John Cameron. The recording, fitting one disk at 74 minutes length, has been issued recently (LPO 0056).

It's a work of definite merit, with plenty of dramatic scoring and vocal presence. Boult and cast do a great job building the case for the opera as a fully worthy modern masterwork. The performance here is surely one of the very best on disk. One quibble: there is no libretto included. Of course nowadays one can readily find such things on the internet. Nonetheless it is a shame that it was omitted. Aside from this, though, Boult's version is a real winner!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jim Connolly, "It is Only Gravity that Makes Wearing A Crown Painful"

Judging from his new release It's Only Gravity that Makes Wearing A Crown Painful (pfMENTUM 061), composer Jim Connolly writes modern music for chamber ensemble that has a distinct Americana feel to it. The Gove County String Quartet along with Anna Abbey on piano and toy piano, and the composer on contrabass present a program of 20 miniatures that have a kind of naive diatonic quality. There is much charm. It isn't quite the sort of naive diatonicism that Erik Satie or John Cage sometimes put forward. It is closer in spirit to Aaron Copland in his more rustic moments, though not precisely. And of course Copland always had a kind of sophisticated way of going about things no matter what he did. Jim Connolly hews more to a folk lifeways in body as well as spirit, albeit transformed to a concert medium.

The music has more charm than it does rigorous form in the more academic sense. For the open listener I suppose this is neither here nor there in the end. The music beguiles and clears the air of any stuffy particulates. I find with successive listens that Connolly's chamber music is only facile on the surface. There is the feeling of an intimate evening of "plain" music in a rural homestead sometime in the unspecific past, but something original and involved going on underneath it as well.

The sound is as plainly presented as the music. It is not something to show off your system to visitors, if anybody does that any more, but it more than adequately conveys the spirit and nuance of the music at hand.

Very interesting, Give it a few hearings and decide for yourself.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Steven Mackey, Lonely Motel, Music from Slide

Steven Mackey writes music that is contemporary in the best sense. He combines all manner of stylistic elements: the modern, the minimal and the post-minimal, a world-influenced style, a little rock-metal from his guitar and appropriate instrumentation, some contemporary musical theater elements and modern operatic sounds, all for Lonely Motel, Music from Slide (Cedille 90000 128). Rinde Eckert takes the vocal parts and also has written the libretto. The noted contemporary chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird provides the body of instrumental-musical sound.

What is Slide? A song suite. There are music references (not quotations) to earlier masters and the Beatles. The lyrics center around a psychologist and have a kind of anxious quality. According to Mr. Mackey, they are "about the isolation created by the attachments we develop to our own fuzzy, personal views of reality."

This is the world premiere recording and all give an excellent performance of a work that needs time to assimilate. Instrumentally there is much to appreciate; the writing is original and diverse, detailed and broadly dramatic. The vocal part (and its performance) has a half-theater, half-modern-chamber-opera sort of vibe to it. It took a number of listens to this aspect particularly to start appreciating it. This is not music for someone who listens only once and expects to get it all before moving on to the next. That will not work with Slide.

At this early stage in the work's reception I must say that it has the makings of something that will be listened to and appreciated years hence. Or perhaps it wont. Either way it is an example of a new synthesis in concert music, a synthesis of some of the sounds we come upon today as serious listeners. A very good example. Those who wish to know where things stand these days should most definitely give this work a close listen.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Arvo Part, Piano Music; Ralph van Raat, Pianist

Arvo Part no doubt occupies a rather central position as one of the world's foremost composers. He is known for many things, but his piano music is not especially one of them.

So when pianist Ralph van Raat offers up a new disk devoted exclusively to this part of his oeuvre, people like me take notice. Piano Music (Naxos 8.572525) covers most of his career: solo works begining with his Opus One, the fascinating neo-classical/modernist "Zwei Sonatinen fur Klavier" (1958/59), through other interesting works spanning the '50s, '70s. and the '00s. Finally there is the 2002 work "Lamentate: Homage to Anish Kapoor and his sculpture 'Marsyas', for piano and orchestra", for which van Raat is joined by the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta.

The Opus One set of sonatinas gives you the Part of not-so-latent talent, a gifted young composer who shows the influence of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. The later works increasingly reveal his own meditative style, which culminates in the fully idiomatic "Lamentate." It's a sensitively and skillfully executed program of some interesting music. It is not all brilliance and light. It does offer revealing glimpses of the composer's development, sometimes via a kind of rummage through the "attic" of earlier works, some neglected, but all well worth hearing and well performed on this disk.

The disk is worth it for the early solo works alone; it is also worth it for the performance and presence of Part's "Lamentate". Put the two aspects together and you have a highly recommended program!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meira Warshauer, Living Breathing Earth

Meira Warshauer combines a modern orchestral vocabulary with a poetic vision of life on this planet and her Jewish heritage. Her Living Breathing Earth CD (Navona 5842) pairs her Symphony No 1 Living Breathing Earth with Tekeeyah (a call), the latter of which is a concerto for trombone, shofar and orchestra.

Throughout there is lyricism and a bit of the bite and tang of contemporary harmonic thinking. The scores are evocative, engaging and filled with associative imagery. This is music, I would hope, of broad appeal, yet sufficiently advanced to satisfy those who look for the music of our time to engage in the sounds of our time.

The performances are very good and the music is highly recommended.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ross Edwards, "Maninyas," Sibelius Violin Concerto, Played by Adele Anthony

We hear in violinist Adele Anthony a bright young star launching into the firmament. She has beautiful tone, great facility, impressive phrasing and a rhythmic drive that is very fitting to the works at hand. For this, her recording of Ross Edwards's Maninyas and Jean Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D Minor (Canary Classics 09), she is joined by the sonorous and very well-prepared Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arvo Volmer. There is a marvelous give and take between soloist and orchestra on both pieces and Volmer draws out the orchestral nuances that in turn are used as a means for Ms. Anthony to take sonoric virtuoso flight in rather breathtaking ways.

Her cadenzas are marvelous. But it is in her interpretations of the central written parts that Adele especially excels.

Both the Edwards and Sibelius concertos have in common a folk element and a rhythmic vitality that orchestra and soloist bring out well. The allegro passages of Maninyas have a Stravinskian-Reichian rhythmic-cellular thrust that Edwards transforms to suite his own total-harmonic palette and the aboriginal theme. The center chorale is tender and lyrical. This piece was heretofore unknown to me. After hearing Ms. Anthony and Maestro Volmer proffer their version of it on this album I must say I am now a true believer.

The Sibelius concerto of course has been performed countless times since it was written. There have been many wonderful recordings. Anthony and Volmer offer an interpretation that ranks among the best. Adele draws out the romantic, rubato passion inherent in the score without sacrificing rhythmic motility. It is a singular thrill to hear her performance here. I have heard more of the folk element drawn out in other versions, but for the ravishing beauty of her execution Adele Anthony's interpretation nears the very best.

In short this disk is vibrant, impressive, and highly sonorous. It is an example of the excellence of Australia's Adelaide Symphony, the finely detailed interpretive nuances of Arvo Volmer's take on these two works, and the impressive powers of Ms. Anthony. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Composer Jeremy Beck Performed By IonSound Project Ensemble

There are more and more composers today that have embraced tonality and earlier styles with a vengeance. At first it seemed that most of those were retreating to a neo-romantic zone. Then there was minimalist linear tonality. Others combined tonality with its opposite. Jeremy Beck favors lyrical excursions into music inspired by Stravinsky's neo-classical period and perhaps a taste of Hindemith. But of course that's not all, there's a little of the S. Barber of Knoxsville and a general rhapsodic approach the puts Beck in his own niche.

The CD at hand IonSound Project (Innova 797) features seven mostly rather brief compositions scored for various instrumental and vocal combinations, as played (well) by the Pittsburgh based sextet IonSound Project.

It is very finely crafted music that leaves an impression in the end. There are glimpses of originality and very sensitive scoring for the various instrumental combinations. Now I do wonder what his orchestral works sound like. As it is, this is lovely music in a chamber mode.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A New Collection of Original Recordings (1928-44) of Weill's Threepenny Opera and Songs From Related Works

Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's classic Der Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) and the cabaret operas that followed form perhaps the single body of classic-modern works most in need of more authentic period interpretation. The pieces were conceived and performed in a '20s-'30s European-cabaret-two-step jazz style that musicians of today have no experience of for the most part; the style of singing--emphatic, declamatory, with vibrato-drenched sarcasm--is perhaps even more difficult to reconstruct. The result is, apart from Lotte Lenya's admirable revival recordings on Columbia in the later '50s, there have been mostly a host of well-meaning performances that essentially miss virtually everything but the melodic contours.

Thankfully we have recordings from the era that faithfully capture the full essence of the works as originally conceived. A 2-CD set available in the States just now is the Capriccio (5061) 2-CD Die Dreigroschenoper/O Moon of Alabama: Historic Original Recordings 1928-1944. It's one disc of various recordings of selections from Threepenny and a disk of selections from three ensuing works: Mahagonny, Happy End and Silbersee. With Threepenny you get the eleven-cut original cast recordings from 1928-30, which give you some definitive versions of around half the work, a 1929 arrangement for winds, selected foreign language versions from the era, and some instrumental dance arrangements. The second disk covers a selection of theater songs from three other productions as noted.

As far as a listening experience goes, one must keep in mind that especially on the first disk there are multiple versions of the most popular songs from the opera, all interesting but subject to a certain amount of repetition.

Beyond that however, this is is something all Weill admirers must hear and appreciate if they are to understand what a modern production must try and realize. Weill was an exceptional melodist but he was also a musical revolutionary in the way he adopted the venacular of the day. The powerful and not to forget, dangerous subjects of the songs and their subversive (to the Nazi thugs) criticism of the world around them are delivered fearlessly and with the kind of dramatic thrust that the theater-cabaret of the times encouraged. A special vibrato on the part of singers and instrumentalists, proper jazz-pop inflection by the instrumentalists, and a kind of fervent conviction are all up front on these recordings.

The sound is what it is--these are 78s that for the worst sort of reasons became rather rare by the end of WWII. The sources used for mastering are all in respectable shape, but one mustn't expect holographic digital clones of the reality of that era. This is as close as you'll come to that, though, barring the invention of a time machine. Essential listening!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Villa-Lobos' "Forest of the Amazon": Complete Version by the Moscow Radio Symphony

Nearing the end of his life Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote the symphonic soundtrack for a movie version of Green Mansions. When that movie failed, so the story goes, Villa-Lobos expanded the music into a full symphonic work, Forest of the Amazon. It is in its own way one of the composer's masterworks, though for a time it was not often performed, if at all. The definitive recording is still probably the one conducted by the composer and released on LP around 1959.

However the first recording left off a good deal of the music due to the time limitations of the 12-inch LP format. The full score was never collated by the composer, as the parts originally recorded became the main concern. Conductor Alfred Heller, a Villa-Lobos protege during Heitor's final years, has reconstructed a critical edition of the score and produced an important new recording of the work, containing 50 minutes more music than the LP was able to present. Renee Fleming rivals original soprano Bidu Sayao in recreating the solo vocal part and the Moscow Radio Symphony does a good job with the now 74-minute version. The recording was around for a number of years but went out of print. It is now available as a Delos CD.

I've long listened to the original LP and it is still an exhilarating experience for this writer. However the full-length version is a revelation. Themes return, are more fully developed, and the enchanted mood of the score is that much more intensified. My only quibble is that the Moscow Radio Symphony does not always capture the fully Brazilian quality of some of the passages, especially those which bring in the chorus.

Nonetheless Alfred Heller has given us a dynamic and exciting version of the full score that rewards the listener with all the color of Villa-Lobos at his orchestral-orchestrational best.

Ideally one should have the original recording along with this one. If you can't manage to find both, then this one makes a fine substitute and gives you everything originally intended to be a part of the work. It should be heard by anyone with an interest in the composer and/or the modern orchestral palette.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Monteverdi's Vespro Della Beata Vergine, 1610, in a Bright New Recording

Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 Vespro Della Beata Vergine (da concerto, composto sopra canti fermi sex vocibus et sex instrumentalis) has, after 400 years, become one of the staples of the Western Cannon, a masterpiece of extended sacred music. The Choir of New College Oxford under Edward Higginbottom has given us a freshly minted recording (Novum 1382, 2CDs), honoring the 400th anniversary of the work's first publication. 400 years! May something of what we do now musically be so remembered in 2410!

The work itself is a beautiful example of Monteverdi's writing for massed choir and small chamber ensemble. Choral counterpoint and homophony join with expressive solo vocals and instrumental interludes. Listening today one is struck by the asymmetrical phrasing that corresponds to the choral text, and the richly varied setting.

The Choir of New College Oxford distinguishes the recording by utilizing a boy's choir for the upper vocal lines, which gives the sound a special resonance.

It is a masterful performance, one of the very best. If you have no Monteverdi in your collection or, like me, you have a good deal, no matter. This one is a great addition to your library either way.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Joana Sa's Striking New Music from Portugal: "Through This Looking Glass" CD/DVD

Before I received the CD/DVD Through This Looking Glass (blinker, Marke fur Rezentes) I did not know of the music of Joana Sa. Now that I have listened repeatedly and watched the accompanying DVD, I feel that I surely do. She hails from Portugal, performs the entire piece live for this production, and leaves no small impression. The piece was conceived and written for prepared piano, toy piano, electronics (mostly live), props (mechanical toys for the most part) and a mobile.

The tripartite influences of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and George Crumb make themselves felt as precursors throughout. You have ambiance, sound-painting and an exotic component in the work as a whole that all the above have something to do with, though she remains totally herself to my mind.

The release includes a CD version of the audio and a DVD film (directed by Daniel Neves) of Ms. Sa's performance. This is late high modernism at its best. The film heightens the performative aspects of the piece with a black and white clarity that gives you insight into the work and Ms. Sa's refreshingly poetic approach. You watch as she manipulates the piano with dexterity and confidence. There are the prepared piano passages, the playing inside the piano with bow hair, mallets, sticks, hands, inserted objects. There is Joana sounding the grand piano from underneath. There are the mechanical toys, the mobile. There is the sheer viceral aspect of performance.

It is a work of great charm. It is sound poetry. It is one of the most successful and attractive high modern keyboard works that I've heard in years. Joana Sa must be appreciated if you want to know where modernism has gone. It's here. Find out more by clicking on the Joanna Sa link on the right. Click on the Trem Azul link on that site to order a copy. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Avant-Minimal Accordion Music from Finland: Antii Paalanen's "Beatbox"

I don't suppose anyone would accuse this blog of getting stuck in a rut. And since it's people who make blogs, and they don't make themselves, it is this writer you can either thank or blame for it.

As if to make a point we travel to Finland today for a most interesting CD of accordion music by composer Antii Paalanen: Beatbox (Sibelius Academy 1005). It's Paalanen and his three row accordion, sometimes apparently multi-tracked, in a program of nine semi-miniatures.

What is compelling is how Antii combines minimalism, folk-like strains and quasi-rock rhythmic insistence into a heady mix that is all his own. There is a full use of all the parameters of sound that his instrument can produce and there is a definite virtuostic bent to the intricacy of the music.

It's melodic in the recognizable almost whistle-along sense. But it also has a power to it that makes it far from lightweight fare. This is serious music. It is seriously interesting. Seriously worth hearing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Grazyna Bacewicz's Violin Concertos Nos. 2, 4, 5: Premier Recordings of Substantial Works, Well Played

If you aren't all that familiar with the music of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) you are not alone. I have only come to her music recently. She left behind a body of works that may be more well-known in her native Poland than they are in the States, but that may be ending as her work becomes heard increasingly.

For instance we have the second volume of her violin concertos (Chandos), played with brilliance and sensitivity by Joanna Kurkowicz, with the Polish Radio Symphony under Lukasz Borowicz.

Bacewicz wrote extensively for the violin, and the concertos certainly show that she was well in command of expressive idiomatic writing for the instrument. The works cover a nine year span from the end of World War II through to 1954. The three works at hand (Concertos 2, 4, & 5) show originality within an overall Eastern European stylistic continuity. They have a moderately modernistic tone with a good deal of deftly handled, continually shifting chromaticisms and some melodic passages that echo Polish folks strains without exactly engaging them. The violin parts are virtuostic and expressive and her handling of the orchestra is sure.

The Chandos recording has good presence; the orchestra is in excellent form. It is a very good introduction to a composer that deserves more recognition in North America.