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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!