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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Volti, House of Voices, More New Directions in American Choral Music

Volti is a choral group from San Francisco devoted to the contemporary muse. They are under the capable direction of Robert Geary. Their latest disk, House of Voices (Innova 834) offers six compositions in what one might call "new form tonal" American music, five of which were specially commissioned by the group.

I've said this before but it still applies: the voice in the form of the choral ensemble affects our inner ear in interesting ways. Perhaps because we are neurologically-psychologically wired to respond to the human voice, choral music gets our primal attention. Simple to moderately complex melody and harmonic sequences, when sung with the expressive focus of a good choral ensemble, have a heightened affect it seems, more so than an instrumental group might have playing the same music.

The point is that good choral music should probably be approached differently compositionally than pure orchestral or chamber instrumental music. Perhaps that is a commonplace in composition classes. But that may explain why some scat singing by less than perfect jazz singers can fail utterly. To try and approximate instrumental style and content with the voice needs absolute perfection to come across to the listener with credibility. So for example an excellent Indian classical vocalist spends many years perfecting his or her art--so that he or she can rival classical instrumentalists in complexity of phrasing and execution. The same could be said of bel canto opera soloists. If they aren't totally great, it doesn't work.

That's not to say that Volti are less than terrific. They are excellent. But the compositions represented on this disk operate in a folk-choral-multi-part universe that is new by virtue of its treatment of familiar melodic-harmonic forms. Each composer, it is clear, has internalized the choral tradition at its best and done something new with it.

So we get six fairly short works all written in this past decade--by Yu-Hui Chang, Ted Hearne, Donald Crockett, Eric Moe, Wayne Peterson, Mark Winges, not exactly household names at this point but all capable of turning out interesting choral work, all getting sensitive and excellently executed performances at the hands of Volti.

Each composition in its own way emphasizes vertical-horizontal phraseology that sounds well in the choral context. Some of it is ravishing. All of it is a testament to the excellence of the Volti ensemble. The music has a direct, straightforwardly aesthetic quality that should be accessible to a larger-than-usual audience for new music. So bravo, then!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peteris Vasks, Vox Amoris, Works for Violin and Orchestra

Peteris Vask, Latvian composer, has been forging an identity based on a mystical, lyrical diatonicism, a music both tender and perhaps world-worn, a contemporary music that, like Arvo Part's but in its own way, marks a return to the tonal roots of music over its long history, that manages at the same time to engage and transcend that history.

Those are the feelings and thoughts I have after a number of listens to his Vox Amoris, Works for Violin and Orchestra (Wergo 67502). The disk present three works written between 1996-2009. Each fits together with the others to form a kind of three-dimensional portrait of the composer and his present-day style.

"Vox Amoris," concerned with love and its transcendent powers, consists of long, flowing minor-diatonic lyric passages, an endless, heartrending melody where the strings set up a lush but luminous carpet for the singingly beautiful solo violin part. Like the other works on this disk, there is a neo/post romanticism at work that functions more as a soundscape than a linear symphonic discourse, again more in that sense like Part than, say, Sibelius.

"Tala Gaisma--Distant Light" is similar in mood and momentum with a feeling of time suspended, a soaring yet restrained violin expressivity and suspended clouds of minor-toned light in the string orchestra.

"Vientulais Engelis--Lonely Angel" brings the program to an end with the shortest work but perhaps the most beautiful violin expressions of all, against the backdrop of a hushed melancholy in the strings.

This isn't expressly happy music; it is deeply internal, a state of feelings that express themselves in intensely lyrical minor reflectiveness. Vasks's string writing is superbly wrought; both orchestra and soloist evoke an almost timeless weightlessness, a long and lingering kind of musical prayer.

It is excellently played by soloist Alina Pogostkina and the strings of Sinfonietta Riga under Juha Kangas.

Based on the music on this disk I would have to say that Peteris Vasks is a compositional voice to be heard, one of the more singular voices out there, a masterful crafter of sad, contemplative beauty. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chris Pugh, Jack Gold, Penumbra/Heqat

Today, music from Seattle. It's a split disk by composer guitarist Chris Pugh, drummer Jack Gold, and Trio Recherche. Penumbra/Heqat (Sol Disk 9406) divides between "Penumbra," an extended duo free improvisation between Pugh on a rather electric guitar and Gold on drums, and the avant concert work "Heqat", a Pugh composition performed by string trio.

What is interesting, first off, is the confluence between avant improv-rock-freedom and closely mapped-out avant concert music. The CD covers both as if a matter of course. We have as precedent key figures like Zappa and Zorn, who never shied away from moving in either direction or both directions at the same time as the spirit moved. And more and more composer-instrumentalists are doing the same lately (see my review on the Gapplegate Music blog on the latest music by Wadada Leo Smith, for example, a particularly moving and excellent new musical example).

There are musicians who have grown up and lived with all manner of genres and hear music bi-stylistically, so to speak. I am one, which is why I cover new music/classical, jazz and rock on the three different blogs and find the overlaps of great interest.

In any event the guitar-drum duet is not distinguished by the technical prowess of Mr. Pugh on electric guitar but more by the sounds and ideas he puts forward freely. Jack Gold plays a dense barrage of arrhythmic drums for the first half, and he is very adept at his role. Chris Pugh develops motifs to repeat while working through a rock and avant vocabulary. The second half of the improvisation concentrates on quiet, non-pitched sounds and though this may be a bit overextended, it does afford contrast.

Then the CD switches gears to a string trio composed by Pugh, "Heqat", performed in concert by Trio Recherche. It has a piquant kind of Darmstadt feel to it, wide leaps, continually shifting string articulation techniques and an atonal-12-tonal sound. The performance is quite serviceable, the music is difficult and occasionally it sounds as if the mix is slightly off in parts, though this may be intentional as the less present string lines at those points have a reverberent quality, so perhaps they are filtered electronically and are meant to be in the background. It's a post-Webernian flurry of jagged musical events and it shows some definite compositional prowess in potentia if not totally in presentia. I would certainly want to hear more of Pugh's new music compositions if given the opportunity.

Penumbra/Heqat gives the listener two very different sides of what is going on today in the avant garde. It is by no means a perfect disk, but gives a fascinating glimpse of the promise of these young Turks for the close listener.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Conrad Chow, Premieres, Music By Bruce Broughton, Ronald Royer, Kevin Lau

Canadian violinist Conrad Chow brings his impressive talent to bear on a series of Premieres (Cambria CD-1204) of works by Bruce Broughton, noted LA film composer, and the Canadian composers Ronald Royer and Kevin Lau. Royer himself conducts the Sinfonia Toronto. Broughton accompanies Chow on piano for the two final chamber works.

Chow has a sweet, pleasing, just slightly hollow tone for the lyrical passages. He generates great torque and excitement for the virtuoso fireworks that some of the movements contain.

To the music: Broughton combines neo-classicism in a post-Stravinsky mold, Scottish fiddle style and Prokofiev-ian drive and bittersweetness for his "Tryptich: Three Incongruities for Violin and Chamber Orchestra." The incongruities work together for a fascinating spin. You experience well put-together movements, each of which plays against the other while also playing on internal stylistic tensions within the movement to create vivid contrasts. In the process there is a connecting thread of linear thrust that unifies this very interesting work.

Royer's "Rhapsody" has a late-romantic, early-modernist lyrical liveliness that makes it something more than a hearkening back. His "In Memoriam J.S. Bach" returns the program to a neo-classical (neo-baroque) stance, with a slightly tart modern touch, passages in five and an otherwise updating and impressionistic treatment of the Master-as-inspiration.

"Joy" for Violin and String Orchestra introduces the music of Kevin Lau to us. Attractive, largo-esque lyricism is at play here for the short work. It has an earthy appeal but goes by all-too-quickly.

For the final works Chow and Broughton team up for some concluding contrasts. The pianist's "Gold Rush Songs" treat loosely, creatively and imaginatively three folk songs associated with the San Francisco area Gold Rush of the 1800's. The music has great charm. Finally as a bonus the two perform a violin-piano transcription of Chopin's "Nocturne" in C-Sharp Minor, which sounds quite lovely in their hands.

So there you have it. Conrad Chow is a voice of distinction, impeccable in technique and a most vivid painter of tone. He has a glorious sound and handles each of these works as if he was born to them.

The works themselves are very refreshing to hear. The roots of the classical and folk past undergo imaginative transformations, so that each work in its own way makes it all new. Each composer has a clear vision of how present and past can transform to a future of repeated pleasure for our appreciative ears. The Sinfonia sounds disciplined and well-disposed toward these works.

A great surprise! Recommended.

Friday, June 22, 2012

JS Bach, Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1: A Composer's Approach, with Don Freund

JS Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, most will know, is one of the singularly brilliant sets of compositions our world has produced.

Composer-Pianist-Musicologist Don Freund has recorded the First Book of Preludes and Fugues from the series and added a DVD of his demonstration and analysis of the first eight sets on Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1: A Composer's Approach (Navona 5869). In all you get the two CDs of music and the DVD lecture disk, at a nice price.

The performances, on pianoforte, are committed and filled with moments where Maestro Freund will via rubato and emphasis, bring out phrases he finds to the point compositionally. It is an unpretentious, very decent reading, if not with the dash and fire of Glenn Gould or the pristine period zeal of Wanda Landowska.

What makes this set especially worthwhile is his lecture disk "Composition Lessons with JS Bach." It captures Professor Freund, presumably at Indiana University where he teaches, providing a very insightful lecture demonstration on the C, C-minor, C# and C#-minor Preludes and Fugues.

It's a DIY video of the lectures themselves, with split-screen presentations of Freund and his piano on one side and Bach's musical notation occupying the other half of the space. For each prelude, each fugue, Prof. Freund has color-coded the notation according to the structural-function of any given passage or line. So with a fugue, you can readily see the fugue subject and its various entrances in the matrix, its permutations, development, the non-structural passages, etc.

What's particularly engaging about the lectures is that Freund looks at each work in terms of compositional strategies. Bach is envisioned writing the actual work, coming to various points in the composition process where he must make choices.

Why he made a particular choice from a strategy standpoint and why Bach was an extraordinary composer for doing so is what the lectures are all about and there are some brilliant analyses. Each prelude-fugue is discussed with Don demonstrating the musical passage in question while you follow on the notation reproduction, then at the end of each set a full performance (from the CD version) is juxtaposed to put it all in perspective.

It serves as a rather brilliant introduction to Bach as a composer sees him, a fellow composer. And so there are moment of delight when we savor a dissonance that the fugal development leads Bach to, moments of free invention, the utter elegance of Bach in simplicity or the incredibly beautiful complexities of his four-part fugal writing.

In the end you go away from this set with insight into the compositional mind of Johann Sebastian Bach. Your appreciation of the Preludes and Fugues are heightened. And then you have some very serviceable and sensitive renditions of the whole of Book One to hear repeatedly.

Students and old hands at the Bach corpus should revel equally in the lectures and appreciate the performances. It's a worthy deal no matter how you look at it. Bravo!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Neil Welch, Sleeper

Sleeper (Table & Chairs) features a mid-sized chamber ensemble of tenor and soprano sax, alto and soprano sax, bass clarinet, trombone and two cellos. Neil Welch, Seattle-based, plays tenor/soprano in the ensemble and composed the 27-minute piece that the disk showcases.

The work addresses and reacts to the questionable death of an Iraqi General by US forces during the last Gulf War. The music has a somber cast at times but is also actively noteful with bursts of long-lined, asymmetrical cyclical phrases in the winds countered by dramatically slower moving and otherwise contrasting lines in the strings and brass.

From there new themes, more long-lined motor-driving passages, modern chorale-like sequences and long notes emerge and submerge. They form a musical-narrative counterpart to what might have been in another context a verbal essay.

It's highly personal music, somewhat understandably anguished at times, but ultimately transcendent, as music. Neil Welch has his own voice. It is expressive and musically rich. I hope we can hear more of his music soon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sophia Serghi, Night of Light

Sophia Serghi, Cypriot, composer, weaver of ostinatos, writer of lyrical, accessible music. Night of Light (Navona 5866) is a full CD of her orchestral works, all with soprano or soprano and mezzo soprano.

It's music that has resonance with Gorecki at times, a pizzicato-arco exotica reminiscent in its own way of Hovhannes now and again, and the extensive use of the minor mode--which no doubt relates to her musical roots.

There are four works, well performed by the Moravian Philharmonic under Vit Micka. Sopranos Alena Helerova, Lucie Silkenova, and mezzo Eliska Weissova sound well in their parts, especially to my mind Ms. Helerova.

The works are in many ways of a piece: minor diatonic, elegant simplicity, archaic, flowing, lyric and evocatively somber. They are not extraordinary complex or difficult to grasp and so may find a larger audience than is the norm for contemporary concert music.

It's music that should please many. I found it enchanting in its own way.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Aaron Novik, Secrets of Secrets

Aaron Novik writes a kind of new music that partakes of prog rock, avant jazz and Yiddish-Jewish folk tradition in very captivating ways on his newly released composition cycle Secrets of Secrets (Tzadik 8168). It is a musical counterpart to the writings of Eleazar Rokeach, a Rabbi of Wurms of the 12th Century, who left behind for us a five volume treatise on ethics and mysticism known as Secrets of Secrets. Each of the five works by Novik gives musical sound to a particular book from Rokeach's opus.

The instrumentation is quite effective in putting across the electric-acoustic musical ideas of the cycle. There's a kind of electric-acoustic nucleus of Fred Frith, avant electric guitarist of repute, Aaron Novik on electric clarinet, percussion and programming, Carla Kihlstedt on electric violin, plus drums, bass clarinet, and more percussion. Then there are the "guests": Ben Goldberg on contra-alto clarinet and clarinet, Lisa Mezzakappa, bass, and one Aaron Kierbel on dumbek. Augmenting the forces are a string quartet and a brass quartet.

The music itself is an amalgam of avant collage, insistent rock-jazz-minimalist repetition at times, Jewish minor tonality, klezmer-style and jazz-style improvisation, and compositional evocations of great originality.

Beyond that it is music that should be heard more than described, because it is tabula rasa in many ways. The music is masterful, haunting and serious on multiple levels. Aaron Novik creates a musical universe all his own. If King Crimson's Lizard was rewritten as a modern classical piece, then adopted to Jewish middle-ages and early 20th century Yiddish performance over time, then cast forward into the space age of the future for further modification, transformation and refinement, one might get a result that would sound something like this. But no, this is Aaron Novik's doing, his vision of the vision of Eleazar Rokeach.

It is one of those compositional cycles/performances that once you hear it a few times it is not easily forgotten. Nor should it be. A masterful work you should make a point of hearing.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Rob Mosher, 31 Chorales

Composer-soprano saxophonist Rob Mosher commemorated his 31st birthday by writing 31 chorales in 31 days. They are loosely in the Bach mould. They have been recorded and released as, not surprisingly, 31 Chorales (self-released).

First, the instrumentation: it's unusual. It's Rob on soprano plus trumpet, bass clarinet and tuba. So you get the ranges you would expect from a four-part chorale, but the sound colors of the ensemble put it in an unusual aural context that is quite pleasant and interesting to the ears.

Second, the music: it's not rote Bach-a-naila. It's a little quirky. There are the 31 miniature chorales and five short chamber compositions. There is the healthy presence of the modern harmonic palette, enough that you know what year this is, plus a good bit of humor and lots of verve.

It's just different enough to be a very pleasant surprise. In the day-in, day-out reviewing of as many as 800 CDs every year, I need that. And if you are a dedicated listener to "serious" music, I would bet you need that too!


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sergio Cervetti, Nazca and Other Works

When a composer doesn't sound much like others there is cause for delight. But it is harder to write about the music. Sergio Cervetti is such a composer. His Nazca and Other Works (Navona 5872) provides four different takes, four different orchestral works by the composer.

They are something new under the sun. Maestro Cervetti has taken the orchestral color soundscaping advances of the experimental years of new music and put them into an expanded tonality and the syntactic discourse of the symphonists, if that makes any sense. This can especially be heard in the six movement work "Nazca".

"Madrigal III" has ravishing string harmonies that manage to suggest both Ives and Respighi, Ruggles and Sibelius, Messiaen and Arvo Part, Hovhannes and Berio. The piece suggests, but as a reverent revery that puts forward momentum to the forefront. It is beauty in the capital /B/ sense.

"Leyenda" brings in soprano Alena Hellerova for an evocative, atmospheric piece, where the beauty of the orchestration and the vocal part dazzles the listener. The text is based on the Uruguayan epic Tabare by Juan Zorrilla de San Martin. The mystically vibrant qualities of the large orchestra and the soprano's ornate and partially folk-oriented inflection evoke both Villa-Lobos and Crumb without sounding the least bit derivative.

Finally the second movement from Cervetti's "Concerto for Harpsichord" brings in a lively South American dance flavor with some brilliant multi-part writing that makes me smile very broadly.

Cervetti hails from Urugway and taught for many years at one of my alma maters, New York University. Somehow the world is in his music: his native world and the world-as-planet.

This is some extraordinarily interesting, exciting and beautiful orchestral music. It makes me want to hear more of him. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wolfgang Rihm, Klavierwerke, 1966-2000, Udo Falkner

With the Wolfgang Rihm of solo piano compositions you hear a complex musical mind at work over time. And with the new release Klavierwerke 1966-2000 (Telos 108, 3-CDs) you can experience that remarkable phenomenon for yourself in a series of excellent performances by pianist Udo Falkner.

After repeated listens to the entire set I report back to you. Wolfgang Rihm has not stuck with one personal style over time. And the styles he energizes at any given point he does with rather striking originality.

The sheer amount of brilliance to be experienced on these disks is such that I feel daunted to describe it all adequately in this short space. But I will try.

There are his steady-state compositions, the piano music that uses the rhythms and harmonic-melodic conventions of early modernism (which also I suppose is in part a post-modernism). There are the pointilistic, post-Darmstadt, post-serialist pieces that have structure and a kind of utopian newness. And then there are the post-Cagean spartanist sorts of pieces, with silences, space and a kind of free melodic non-repetitiveness. The last two categories meld together at points, understandably, but they seem to hold true more or less in his corpus as presented here.

So you have those three loosely defined sorts of pieces. What makes it important and what makes it interesting is that Maestro Rihm does not do the expected within any of the three parameters. He makes it all different by his striking choice of notes. Now this may sound a bit obvious, but not as you listen. He is unmistakably Rihm the composer and no one else throughout the course of these three disks. Pianist Udo Falkner brings out the "Rihm-ness" of the music quite nicely.

In the end, for me. after my customary five listens for a review such as this, I am left with, "This music is different! It strikes the respective stylistic forms squarely in the center at each juncture, yet it does so in ways that make me want to hear it all a great deal more in order to appreciate it more fully." That's probably the ideal situation for the new music listener to be in: an open-ended challenge to appreciate and understand over a lifetime.

And so I recommend this set heartily. Rihm is Rihm! It takes time to get with him!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Scott Brickman, Winter & Construction

Scott Brickman composes music that is modern (and/or post-modern) in ways different than the norm these days. The harmonic language is not quite blazing avant. It is (twelve) tonal in an expanded way, mostly more linear than vertical. The musical syntax has a kind of original logic. He explores intervalic relationship not so much as Stefan Wolpe or Ruth Crawford Seeger did, but in common with them there is a discursive flow and at times a playful quality, an exploration of tones unfolding in time, though this is serious music.

His CD of compositions, Winter & Construction (Ravello 7823) gives us a good earful of his music, seven pieces written between 2003-2010. The music is scored for piano, guitar and violin in various combinations, from his Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3, through to a piece for solo guitar and one for solo violin, a piece for violin and guitar, and two trio works for all three instruments.

Throughout the music is distinguished by the sensitively appropriate playing of Nathanael May on the piano, Matt Gould on the guitar and Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould at the violin. The latter two have recorded a number of CDs as Duo 46 and also previously appeared in tandem with Nathanael May (see this blog and the Gapplegate Guitar blog for review postings). They have a natural easiness and unpretentious matter-of-factness in their deliveries, collectively and individually, that seem just right. They strike me as the near-perfect exponents of these works.

And the works themselves are sincere, eloquent testimonies to Brickman's straightforward style and refreshing take on modernity.

The music speaks with lucidity, charm and convincing elan.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman, Civilization & Its Discontents

Dubbed "An Opera for Our Times," Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman's Civilization & Its Discontents (Labor 7089) had a popular run on NPR radio and was released originally on Nonesuch some time in the '80s.

Aside from the reference to Freud's monograph (which is not unrelated), it is a full-length cabaret-opera with lots of sung dialog on the empty club-hopping, networking, pre-Aids casual coupling, the empty life of vain striving for relational and occupational success that was a big part of the late '70s-early '80s.

As with Eric Salzman's earler Nude Paper Sermon it has lots of words and looks to encapsulate the social-cultural malaise of the times. Michael Sahl (known especially at the time for his "Mitsvah for the Dead") brings in his musical acuity.

The characters are lost in their abortive attempts to communicate, via telephone, live banter, bodily engagements and rebuffs in a world where Club Bide-a-wee forms the locus of their futility and the apartments where pickups end up willy-nilly to continue the unsatisfying cycle that brings them back again to the club for another go at it. As the MC suggests in the end, the club promises much but ends up functioning as a kind of dog pound for the stray humans who gravitate there.

Musically it's most definitely in the tongue-in-cheek club cabaret, Broadway emptiness pop-disco vein. And that fits the ambiance and thrust of the work. It was designed to be dated when it was made and it is dated now. But that is the point. The characters go through the motions, put on the clothes, dance to the music and have the casual attempts at sex like manikins in a department store window. Fashion soon makes them irrelevant and it's time to retool for the next wave of chic endeavor.

This is an opera-play-avant-musical where the music is secondary to the plot. It's most thoroughly worth hearing again today. The music is more incidental than it is central. But what is being portrayed still speaks today. So there you go. I am glad to have heard it.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Max Reger, Violin Sonatas opp. 3 and 41, Wallin, Pontinen

Max Reger (1873-1916) was an imposing composer in his own right, but also a key link between European late romanticism and what came after, especially for his influence on the Viennese school, Schoenberg first and foremost. Yet his music has not always been given the attention it deserves in the United States.

Why that is cannot be the subject of this posting, assuming I could sum all that up cogently in a short space or that I knew all the ins and outs of the reception history of the past hundred years.

With the new recording of two of his principal Violin Sonatas, the No. 3, op. 41 and the No. 2 op. 3 (CPO 777445-2) we can at least hear for ourselves two characteristic and representative works, played with care and passion by Ulf Wallin on violin and Roland Pontinen at the piano.

These are works that have formal heft as well as affective impact. There is no shortage of thematic material and the working out of form is masterful.

It is the music of his era, filtered through a musical vision that saw its way through the formless excesses of the times into a new kind of musical classicism.

These are dense works, works of a serious, somber cast, in every way showing the sure hand of a master. Wallin and Pontinen do them justice. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Charles Koechlin, Magicien orchestrateur

I doubt if many in the know would take issue if I called Charles Koechlin the most underrated French composer of the 20th century. He was gifted, brilliant, original and his music sounds more current than ever.

Today's CD comes as a pleasant surprise, then, since it is devoted to Koechlin's treatment of other people's music. It reminds us directly and movingly that he was a great orchestrator. Magicien orchestratur (SWR Music/Hanssler Classic 93.286) puts conductor Heinz Holliger at the helm of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR for a program that has great beauty and aural vibrancy.

Debussy's Khamma is given a glowing palette of orchestral color; Koechlin's Sur les Flots lointains (sur un Chant donne de Catherine Urner) has brevity and charm. The Koechlin orchestration of Faure's Pelleas et Melisande is perfection. It makes the impressionistic qualities of Faure's lyricism breathe with springlike rapture.

The Schubert Wandererfantasie convinces with an orchestration in keeping with Schubert's period. It's less spectacular but fun to hear. Then there is Chabrier's Bourre fantasque, a beautiful orchestration of one of the gems of the piano repertoire.

Throughout as one listens, one is reminded that Koechlin as orchestrator was at the level of Ravel when things went well. The Faure and Chabrier show that. What is good orchestration except a bringing out of the color implications of the melody-harmony sequences at hand? Koechlin does it masterfully. Holliger and the SWR Orchestra do the music just right. It's great fun to hear, a great pleasure and another reminder of Koechlin's stature.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lopes-Graca, Symphony for Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Cassuto

It is a bit of a commonplace to note how the golden age of mechanical reproduction, heralded by the advent of the LP in the '50s, ushered in a situation where the living room became co-equal partners with the concert hall in the introduction of new music. The LP allowed for a lengthy, sometimes difficult work, to be heard repeatedly with ease. Composers and works that might never had seen the light of day previously were now allowed to be heard by the enthusiast.

That brings us to the present, the digital age, where of course this process continues. Today's composer might not elsewise be heard by someone like me, here in the New York Metropolitan area. But now I can, for a small price, listen to Fernando Lopes-Graca's Symphony for Orchestra (Naxos 8.572892). And that is just what I have been doing.

Lopes-Graca (1908-1992) was one of Portugal's most productive composers and made his mark there. Over here we have heard less of him. The disk at hand provides an interesting and well-executed introduction to his orchestral works.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Alvaro Cassuto leads us through spirited readings of four of his pieces, spanning the period of 1944 (the Symphony) through 1961 (December Poem). It gives us a chance to explore two sides of Lopes-Graca's style, the folk oriented "Suite Rustica No.1" (1950) and the more-or-less neo-classical/impressionist side in one his more well-known works, the aforementioned "Symphony for Orchestra".

Here is a composer well at home with the resources and colors available to him in the modern symphony orchestra. He is perhaps most notable on first hearing for his scoring and orchestration. It has great charm, clarity and color. Clearly he learned from the impressionists and those who came after.

The "Symphony for Orchestra" strikes me as the most memorable of the works presented here. It has a certain playfulness contrasted with a kind of refined majesty and excited turbulence. The "Suite Rustica No. 1" brings in the sounds of his native Portugal, somewhat in the way Ralph Vaughan Williams did for English folk. It is a symphonic treatment that transforms the material into a personal classical expression.

"December Poem" and "Festival March" are worth hearing and appreciating as well, especially the former for its further development of Lopes-Graca's style.

Maestro Cassuto brings out the color and nuance of the works; The Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounds both disciplined and inspired.

So here is your chance to hear an unfamiliar but quite reasonably captivating composer of the twentieth century at his best. He may not supplant Ravel or Stravinsky in your heart, but he will give you plenty to enjoy and savor on this disk.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Andy Akiho, No One to Know One

Andy Akiho is a virtuoso of the steel pan, the instrument constructed from the top of an oil drum, that originated in the Caribbean and spread to the diaspora. He also composes music. Put together his playing with ensembles of varying size doing his compositions, and what you have is his album No One to Know One (Innova 801).

The best phrase I can think of to describe the music might be "composed fusion." Most of the pieces have a rock-oriented rhythm section of drum set and either contrabass or electric bass. Several string players and/or winds, and sometimes harp, piano and/or vibes augment the group.

Andy varies the sound of the steel pan when it suits him to do so by preparing it with different materials or playing it with chopsticks.

The result is a program of rock-minimal-oriented pieces that are quite tonal and accessible. I suppose "light modern classical" might sometimes be applied to the music, except it's not always really classical, and the lightness comes out of those times when pop-rock motives are adapted. Other times it's complex modern minimalist music. Any given piece most of the time would not sound out of place as part of a soundtrack. Nor would they be out of place in a college radio programming situation.

But even if that were to be the case the timbre of the steel pan and Andy Akiho's vibrant style in the fusion rhythmic context would make this music stand out from the rest of the fare.

As they used to say, it's a gas, man.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 2 "To October", Symphony No. 15, Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

Shostakovich wrote some 15 symphonies in his lifetime (1906-1975). Many of them rank among the very finest examples this past century produced. Not all of them, however. His Second Symphony, "To October" doesn't quite hang together, all things considered. But taken as a whole, the 15 symphonies are a remarkable body of work.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic have undertaken to record the entire cycle for Naxos. Judging from the volume I have been listening to, it will be a good effort.

As the header for today's entry makes clear I have been enjoying the coupling of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2 with his final Symphony No 15 (Naxos 8.572708). If you are going to be doing the complete cycle it is probably wise to inter-leaf some of the minor works (No. 2) with the masterpieces, of which No. 15 certainly is one. That way the lesser work serves as a contrasting prelude to the more definitive example that follows.

It's not that No. 2 is in any way inferior as music. It doesn't quite hang together as a symphony. It is very brief, 18 minutes, with two movements acting as a kind of peremptory orchestral clearing of the throat to the third "To October" choral movement. This of course was a piece to commemorate the October Revolution, and in those days it was no doubt expedient to put great emphasis on the choral hurrah section.

The 15th Symphony is another matter altogether, combining majestic flights with grotesqueries and even a little buffoonery in the brief quotation of the Gallop from Rossini's "William Tell Overture," Wagnerian grandeur, a bit of storm and stress, the haunting quality of half-remembered peasant dances from long ago, and a deft interweaving of 20th century modernity with deliberate archaicism. It sprawls and unfolds with a symphonic narrative that is in many ways the culmination of a lifetime of exceptional symphonic development. Here was a man with only a year left to live, summing up his life in the symphony, his life in music.

One should linger over this one along with his 1st, 5th, 7th and the rest of the last symphonies to get a proper picture of his stature. Thankfully Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic give us a very respectable, focused and sonically impressive reading of both works. At the Naxos price it's quite irresistable. A nice slab of Shostakovich for you!