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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

John Luther Adams, The Wind in High Places

John Luther Adams creates music than is more than just imaginative. At times it is pure magic. I named his orchestral work Become Ocean as the "Best Modern Classical, New Music" Record of the Year for the rapidly waning 2014 (see the December 12th, 2014 post on this blog) because it was that...magic. Maestro Adams has successfully, brilliantly managed to give us a modernism (or a postmodernism if you will) that is radiantly representative without being programmatically literal, tonal without being classically sequential, rapturous without direct reference to human or cosmic agency--a music without myths, without much in the way of extra-verbal textuality, with affect but without discernable human intent.

He does something like this again with his new album, The Wind in High Places (Cold Blue 0041). It is some enthralling music for string quartet (JACK Quartet) and for cello orchestra (the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble). There are three works presented in all.

First up is the title piece, "The Wind in High Places." Adams conceives of the string quartet as a sort of 16-stringed wind harp for the three movements that comprise the work. Through open strings and harmonics a varying canvas of aetherial, primal voicings come at us in varying degrees of density and intensity, all representing the wind in natural settings. It has an uncanny tonality that through sound color recreates nature in all its ebbs and flows. The music is striking in its almost primitively elemental, yet vividly natural color.

The most sonorously astounding of the three works surely is the four-movement "Canticles of the Sky." On it are 44 cellos. They create a world of their own, as limitless and even as breathtaking as the sky panoramas they depict. This, as in the other works here, is not thematic in any conventional sense. "Canticles" presents open sounds as variable but then too as unified in expression as drifting clouds. The music creates analogies of vast expanses in space, and like "Become Ocean" they ebb and flow, flux and disperse in ecstatic singularity. There is an ever-shimmering harmonic fundamentality of fourths and fifths and added notes, a stunning largo ground without so much foreground as continuousness. It captures the imagination with a real grandeur that like its subject acts as a benevolent force of nature.

"Dream of the Canyon Wren" returns to the string quartet for a piece that emulates the call of the Canyon Wren, familiar to the composer as a fellow inhabitant of his desert home. It is an evocative work that concludes the program on a positive note. It may not be quite as astounding a piece as the two preceding it, but it gently cradles us and brings us back down to earth in a way most fitting.

This is a beautiful recording with music that enchants. John Luther Adams gives us some of his most intimate music on this one. Is communicates directly and with sublimity.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Michael Vincent Waller, Seven Easy Pieces, for Solo Piano

Young composer Michael Vincent Waller has graced these pages before with his Five Easy Pieces for piano (type his name in the search box for that). He returns with another set of Seven Easy Pieces (Bandcamp). Marja Ilic does the honors as the performer and gives us a reading worthy of the music.

Like the earlier set this is music as a post-minimalist, postmodernist, rather impressionistic series of miniatures that feature irregular scalular melodics in the right hand, accompanied by simple but sometimes contrasting phrasings of accompaniment in the left that can show groupings that give the feeling of dual time signatures in a movement.

They are charming, mostly diatonic efforts (with one using a whole-tone scale) that have a kind of Asian ritual quality not so far removed from Debussy in his exotic mode, only regularized and simplified to offer a beginning pianist a feel for postmodernist irregularity in repetition.

They are not merely pedagogical in that they maintain a fascination as music per se. The seven pieces flow together well in the form of a suite.

Michael Vincent Waller is a composer of promise. I hope we can hear some more involved examples of his music in the near future. The program is short but sweet, coming in at about 15 minutes. You can access the music for a nominal sum at

Monday, December 29, 2014

If, Bwana, The Rationale for a Space Telescope

The If, Bwana group has been making some unpredictable and interesting avant music for decades now. It is a loosely shifting configuration of players headed by Al Margolis, who generally constructs the compositional frameworks and gathers together musicians best suited to playing them. A more or less recent download-only album, The Rationale for a Space Telescope (Pogus, Bandcamp) gives us a new set of sounds to contemplate and get inside of. I've been doing that.

Five different compositions are featured on the album, making good use of Daniel Barbiero on contrabass especially, but also Nathan Bontrager on cello, and Viv Corringham on voice. The studio situation is made good use of via multi-tracking and overdubbing to create ensembles of bass, bass with cello and the two with voices. Margolis operates in the realm of bowed sonorities both tuned and using quarter tones, harmonics and such. Some have a drone-based sound, others activate shifting sound colors born of strings, especially the bowed contrabass, still others create landscapes of gradually encompassing continuousness with both vocals and strings collaging in a sort of spatial clustering that occupies its own world.

Barbiero's rich bass tone predominates through much of the music and sounds especially well. But then Bontrager's cello and Corringham's vocals add much when called upon, depending on the work. The effect is a sort of organic electro-acoustics born of Margolis's keen sense of recombinatory logic. There is both a spontaneous feel and a use of full string sonority in this music. It is not as much formal as it is experimental, which is in keeping with the If, Bwana ethos.

It's music that provokes a response, willy nilly. Listen and be carried away by the sounds you must do or leave it alone, for there is no passive middle ground with this kind of sonics. If, Bwana has always been on the more adventurous side of avant music congregrations. The adventure continues here, quite nicely at that. To find out more or to buy a download go to

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christopher Atzinger, American Lyricism, Piano Music by American Composers

Today is Boxing Day in some places. Happy that to those who participate. Here in the USA it is simply holiday season Friday--but also Kwanzaa! I have dutifully gotten myself out of bed at an early hour to write up my customary reviews. Today we have an interesting anthology of American post-past piano music by Christopher Atzinger, appropriately titled American Lyricism (MSR 1534). On it are five compositions by living American composers writing in a lyrical, tonal vein.

So we have Christopher Theofanidis and his "All Dreams Begin with the Horizon" (2007), Richard Danielpour and his "The Enchanted Garden: Preludes, Book II" (2009), Monica Houghton and her "Sonata for Piano" (1998), Justin Merritt's "Chaconne: Mercy Endures" (2009) and Pierre Jalbert's "Toccata" (2001).

Essentially, then, we have works of the present century, lyrical, poetic, somewhere between post- and neo- in that they at times hearken back to a sort of impressionism but also sound fresh and contemporary. Danielpour includes a "Winter Solstice" movement in his Preludes so we are also timely.

I won't try and run down each work. They fit together by virtue of being expressive and tonal (and at times chromatic) without being romantic, they are poetically played by Christopher Atzinger, and they have both lively and contemplative qualities, depending on where you are on the program.

It's good music, well played!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Woldemar Bargiel, Complete Orchestral Music, Volume One

Toccata Classics, in its continuing mission of unearthing forgotten composers from the last few centuries, gives us a romantic that has suffered near total oblivion after considerable fame in his lifetime, one Woldemar Bargiel (1828-97), the half-brother of Clara Schumann. He appears before us with a symphony and three overtures in the inaugural Complete Orchestral Music, Volume One (Toccata Classics 0277).

The Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasilyev gives us quite credible and dynamic readings of the works. They are firmly in the romantic mode of earlier Beethoven, Schumann, perhaps a hint of Mendelssohn, and perhaps Brahms. The music is well put-together and lively. He sounds rather totally of his era in that the tenor of these works initially merges with those of his contemporaries on first hearings. This style, you could say, was as much his as theirs. The uniqueness of each work takes some time to discern but it is generally there, nothing radical or eccentric mind you, but the music holds its own after repeated listenings.

The overtures in keeping with the era are more like single symphonic movements than medleys of contrasting thematic blocks in the preludian fashion of the earlier period. There is nothing second-rate about any of these works. If he was content to synthesize the existing stylistic tendencies rather than boldly set off on a radically original path of his own, we must accept that and appreciate the quality of the music he produced.

Dean Caceres in the liners calls him "one of the best German composers of the middle of the nineteenth century." The first volume works date between 1852 and 1864, so we certainly get a middle-century view of the composer. Further volumes I presume will cover his later output, which apparently moves a bit closer to Brahms yet retains a neo-classic balance of form and feeling. The works of the first volume one can presume contain the works that made his reputation then. Caceres notes that the music encyclopedias of the 1870s generally give him the long write-ups of a composer of importance. After that we can presume his star gradually faded in the concert public eye to the point today where we know nothing of him.

This new release provides us with a clear snapshot of his first flourishing, with all works presented in their premiere recordings. It will be fascinating to those especially keen on the era but nevertheless also will give the classical-listening generalist music worth hearing for itself. In that I do not hesitate to recommend the disk for those who welcome new music from this period. It does not disappoint.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rued Langgaard, String Quartets Vol. 3, Nightingale String Quartet

Some composers are enigmatic. You need to come to them on their own terms and forget about expectations. Such a one is the Danish Rued Langgaard (1893-1952), who countered the modern doings of contemporary Carl Nielsen by remaining in the realm of a late romanticism that was as much personal as eclectic. He was at odds with his times and consequently was not given much attention until years after his death.

These days he is getting something of his due. A prime example of that is the Nightingale String Quartet's acclaimed recordings of the complete quartets in three installments. I have been listening to Volume Three (DaCapo 6.220577). I missed the first two but this one tells the story well. It includes the first and fifth quartets. All the quartets are youthful works written in a concentrated span beginning in 1914 when the composer was just 21. The first was revised in 1936 and enjoys its first recording here. The fifth was written in 1925 and revised between 1926 and 1938.

All the quartets were apparently inspired by a hopeless love affair he had during the summer of 1913. They are filled with longing but not sentimentality so much. You can hear the influence of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms in the first and fifth quartets, but then something else as well, something Langgaardian.

Both quartets show real craftsmanship and inspiration. The Nightingale Quartet do a splendid job bringing out the drama and nuances of the works and in so doing go a long ways in helping you forget his out-of-time stance. In the end it doesn't matter how his music should have sounded in his era. This is music written out of an inner necessity more than a stubborn refusal to move with the times, or so it sounds to me. As a bonus we get a very short scherzo movement the composer set down in 1950. And then there is silence.

The music and performances together make for a very rewarding experience, beyond what you might have expected, yes, but in every way worth immersing oneself in. The Nightingale Quartet take to these works with clarity, passion and the best kind of four-way dialoging. Bravo!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Paul Osterfield, Sound and Fury, Chamber Music

Perhaps the thing that most perplexes the novice listener to high modernist music (and advanced jazz, for that matter) is a puzzlement about affect. Pop songs have lyrics that tell you often enough how to feel. And the romantic era utilized affect codes at times, especially when the music was programmatic, that gave you often enough a range of emotional states you could pin onto the sounds, especially in opera. Minor key is sad, Beethoven's Fifth is about fate (or is it really?), Requiems, lost love, etc. It was always pretty clear where affect in La Boheme could be found, though that's perhaps a more extreme example than the norm. Not that it was always all that simple but a listener who needed some immediate grasp on feeling in the music could generally lock onto something pretty quickly, whether or not it did full justice to the music and what it "meant."

High modernist music is generally a complex response to the modern age we live in. The music in a way makes a representative model for all the complexities and complications of the industrial and perhaps post-industrial worlds we experience, getting stuck in traffic queues day-after-day to go to jobs connected to a whole in complex and often enough in unclear ways, being in one's home space and experiencing the various technologies that both simplify and make complex our recreational lives....being subject to authoritative force without necessarily being able to identify those driving all of it....Nothing about modern life is exactly simple, and the modernist musical experiencing of it both models it all and gives out with a complex affect that is often deeply ambiguous and not always a matter of clarity.

What puzzles or irritates the novice is what perhaps most interests the confirmed listener. One does not seek to label every passage with x or y feeling, though sometimes there may be something thematic about the music that does that regardless--in the religious music of Messiaen, for example. But even then the complexities express a complex of affect that does not in all its fullness give you a simple feeling key. Late Romanticism often enough had those complexities--a Mahler symphony can be a bundle of feelings expressed at times obliquely. But high modernism is also often enough an abstraction, with real life in there somehow, but not in any literal, monolithic way.

So we turn today to an anthology of high modern chamber music which by its title seems to give us a key to affect. Sound and Fury (Navona 5978) it is named, a worthy grouping of four compositions by Paul Osterfield. The album is titled after the piano trio that leads off the program. The music there is quite declamatory, dynamic, perhaps at times filled with a generalized "fury"--at times a complex of direct hits in a boxing match with inertia, perhaps. But Osterfield is no literalist, so the fury here is not especially referential to something outside as much as it is a part of the internal musical workings of note-against-note and note-with-note. After all, and this is key, Shakespeare has one of his characters tell us that life is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." So in a way the music is about the complexity of meaninglessness as we experience it today, perhaps.

A little bit about Osterfield: he was born in Nashville in 1973, began playing the cello early-on and gradually turned to composing. He studied with Donald Erb among others, composing as he went and earning the various degrees that enable him to teach (at Middle Tennessee State University) while he continues to build his reputation and output as a composer of note.

The four works here sound quite good, thanks to the excellent abilities of the Blakemore Trio, pianists Caleb Harris and Lynn Rice-See, violinists Michael Jorgensen and Andrea Dawson, and Angela DeBoer on horn. They realize the music with care and feeling.

All four works have a dynamic charge, a full into-the-fray sort of excitement. They tend toward the outer edges of tonality and beyond. And the works each have a sort of individual stamp to them which is in part a matter of instrumentation, and as much or more a product of Osterfield's high inventive imagination. So we get the piano trio driving our attention with "Sound and Fury," the virtuosic clout of the "Etudes for Piano, Book 1," the abstraction in sound for violin and piano which is quite well done and fitting to the subject matter in "Kandinsky Images," and the concretely whispy, sometimes folksy modern matter-of-factness of violin, horn and piano on "Smoky Mountain Autumn."

There is much to explore here and the explorations pay off with an ever heightening appreciation for the highly wrought, master craftsmanship and art in the pieces. Osterfield is a modernist natural. This music shows a ready brilliance of sorts that comes off convincingly as no mere exercise in advanced sound, but with an organic centered quality that shows the sure hand of a composer of talent. Affect? It is here. This is music with feeling, but not simply so.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Karel Husa, Music of Life, Orchestral Masterworks

Karel Husa is a name I've heard mentioned over the years, but I must admit I have not experienced much of his music to speak of until now, aside from a few examples on Louisville Records. He was born in Prague in 1921, studied with Honegger and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, came to the US in the early '50s and has resided here since, teaching at Cornell and Ithaca for many years. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his "String Quartet No. 3."

Impressive credentials, to say the least. His music lives up to expectations. A fine recording of three orchestral works is available as Music of Life: Orchestral Masterworks (Ablaze 00008). They show a fully modernist mastery of orchestral forces and a keen inventiveness. The world premiere recordings of his "Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra" and "Pastoral for String Orchestra" are included, along with "Scenes from The Trojan Woman."

The "Pastoral" is short to the point of terseness, but engaging. The other two works are more boldly modern and dynamically enthralling with their dissonances and orchestral fireworks. This is music outside the fractured realm of Darmstadt Serialism, more sequentially unfolding and A-to-B in syntax.

The "Cello Concerto" has a very expressive, rather dark solo part played here with finesse and an excellent idiomatic sense by Paul York. The music bursts forth with firey orchestral colors and emblazoned climaxes.

"Scenes from The Trojan Woman" has some beautifully buoyant percussion and extraordinarily apocalyptic orchestral passages that show you the Husa of vivid contrasts.

All three works are impressive and the performances by the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra under Kimcherie Lloyd sound great.

You modernist-leaning listeners out there will find this one an exemplary introduction to orchestral Husa. It is a rather blazing tribute to a composer who clearly deserves more recognition. Recommended!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gerald Cohen, Sea of Reeds, Works for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble

Something that is easy to like is not necessarily facile. I would say that of composer Gerald Cohen's recent album of compositions for one or more clarinets and chamber ensemble, Sea of Reeds (Navona 5979).

Quite the opposite applies in this case. Cohen's music is filled with vibrant melody, rhythmic clarity, drive and compositional construction that show a mastery of and a real sympathy towards the clarinet.

That is coupled with instrumentalists who clearly love this music and match the notes with execution that brings the music vividly to life. The Grneta Ensemble of two clarinets and piano with and without the viola of Maria Lambros or the violin of Jennifer Choi (and that includes Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski on clarinets and Alexandra Joan on piano) bring out the Baltic-Jewish-Jazzish charm of the music rather brilliantly.

What we have are four works/suites written between 2007 and 2010 and they work together to bring you a big picture of a Gerald Cohen inspired by the instrumentation and filled with things for the artists to play/say. The music speaks naturally, unforced yet with a classic balance.

"Variously Blue," "Sea of Reeds," "Yedid Nefesh" and "Grneta Variations" overflow the disk with expressive music that revels in tonality yet of a more folksy eastern than academically classical sort. You may hear a touch of Stravinsky or Prokofiev in the driving lucidity, but that can just as much have to do with the rootedness of the music as any direct connection or influence.

This is a sheer delight to hear, a chocolate-fudge sundae of excellently intertwining musical syntax.

Three cheers for this one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Amy Schendel, Uncommon Ground, Contemporary Works for Trumpet with Horn, Trombone, Piano and Organ

As per yesterday's post and the idea that brass music feels seasonal, we have another one today, quite different but equally lively. It is an anthology of modern works by trumpeter Amy Schendel and others, called Uncommon Ground (MSR 1536).

Six contemporary works are presented, all featuring trumpet and other instruments. These are not well-known composers, at least not to me, but the works have plenty of substance and spirit.

Patrick Schulz contributes "Fanfare for Trumpet and Piano," Jean-Francois Michel "Suite Pour Trompette, Cor et Trombone," and also "Eveils Pour Trompette, Trombone et Piano," Joseph Blanda "French Suite," Wayne Lu "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano," and Harald Genzmer "Sonate fur Trompette in C und Orgel."

These are works with a straightforwardly contrapuntal or generally through-composed demeanor, with a modern tonal palette to lesser or greater degree, depending. They each reflect a sort of neo-classic stance, in the sense that they take into consideration the past via a reflection on classic music for brass, yet are thoroughly of our time.

Amy Schendel acquits herself well, with a nicely burnished tone and a way around her parts that are given weight by the fine work of the other brass players and keyboardists represented on the program.

It is a program of worthy compositions, played with verve and even joy.

It's a good one!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thompson Brass Ensemble, Barbara Bruns, Music for Brass & Organ

I associate brass ensembles with this time of the year--winter and Christmas. Part of that is because of my experience in high school band and the brass choirs my second band director assembled for winter concerts, partly because the association is part of the season anyway.

So when I received recently the new disk by the Thompson Brass Ensemble and organist Barbara Bruns, namely Music for Brass & Organ (MSR Classics 1481), I was ready and predisposed toward it.

It's a nice program covering Gabrieli, Buxtehude and Bach as one might expect, but also Strauss, Hovhaness, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov--and others you might not typically come across in such an anthology.

In truth it all works quite well. The ensemble and Ms. Bruns give us stirring renditions. The three Fisk organs from three New England churches sound regal and dramatic, and the brass is recorded with the spatial staging you would expect.

The beauty of the music shines forth in splendor and I find myself in the spirit of the season every time I listen. It is a very good one, with just enough of the unexpected to give your ears new life.

Very recommended.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Review Records of the Year, 2014

As in keeping with last year, it is again time for my "Records of the Year" picks. With so many exciting new recordings coming out in 2014 it has been tough to narrow it all down to just three. See the other blogsites for the rest of my choices. Here are those that belong in the Modern Classical category.

Best Modern Classical Album, New Music: John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (Cantaloupe) See review, October 23, 2014.

Best Modern Classical Album, Repertoire: Milhaud, L'Orestie d'Eschyle (The Oresteia of Aeschylus), Kenneth Kiesler, University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, etc. (Naxos) See review, September 29, 2014.

Best Modern Classical Album, Wild Card: Markus Reuter, Todmorden 513, Concerto for Orchestra, Thomas A. Blomster, Colorado Chamber Orchestra (7D Media) See review, June 25, 2014.

Bruce Levingston, Heavy Sleep, Music for Solo Piano

The right pianist with the right imagination can fashion a program that is very...right. Pianist Bruce Levingston has done this vividly on his album Heavy Sleep (Sono Luminus 92183). What we have in the artist's vision is a series of piano works where "each relates either directly or spiritually to the theme of death, rebirth, or both," to quote the pianist from the liners. Every work also refers obliquely or directly to other composers and/or their own works. The idea is that "together, these works offer a touching perspective on the close spiritual connectivity we all share as artists and as human beings, culture to culture, past and present."

This germinating set of ideas gives Levingston the inspiration to make the music express deeply. It is a pianistic monument in its own way to the ideas and composers involved.

Two modern works serve as bookends to the music of Bach himself or his music as represented in piano transcription. It begins with Timo Andres' "Heavy Sleep," then proceeds to the Bach-Reger "Chorale Prelude in B Minor," the Bach-Siloti "Prelude in B Minor," continues with a Bach Prelude and a Fugue, both also in B Minor, his "Chromatic Fantasy in D Minor," a Fugue in D Minor, Bach-Kurtag's "Gottes Zeit Ist Die Allerbeste Zeit" and finally Mohammed Fairouz's "El Male Rachamin" in memory of Gyorgy Ligeti.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow description of the music here. Suffice to say that Levingston makes of the Bach something entirely contemporary seeming and/or brings out the linear baroque qualities of the modern works. Levingston makes all flow as one by his sheer pianism and his abundant interpretive instincts.

The new works (in their recorded world premieres) are significant and deep, and share with Bach an ingenious overarching sense of the drama of intensely realized inner workings. Bruce Levingston is a pianistic poet of the highest sort. The disk fills you with the wonder of music and how it can express some of humanity's most profound concerns.

I recommend this one to you without hesitation. It is a winner on every count.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Grazyna Bacewicz, Symphony for String Orchestra, Capella Bydgostiensis Chamber Orchestra, Smolij

I was fortunate to come across the music of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) in the course of a concert I attended of the NY Philharmonic under Kurt Masur back in the '90s as part of my regular NY beat. Since then the Polish composer has gotten my attention and rewarded me with some excellent music.

That continues today as we have a new release by Mariusz Smolij and the Capella Bydgostiensis performing the Symphony for String Orchestra (Naxos 8.573229) along with her "Concerto for String Orchestra" (1948) and a new chamber orchestra version of her "Piano Quintet No. 1" (1952/2013) put together by the conductor.

This is vintage Bacewicz at her very best, played with zeal and distinction. The "Concerto" leads off the program with a stirring first movement and delivers throughout. Bacewicz has a basic modern, harmonically advanced sensibility and a pleasing, rhythmically forward momentum during this period that puts her very loosely in a neo-classical realm, somewhere between Stravinsky and Bartok but also fully Bacewiczian.

The 1946 "Symphony" has no less charm and invigoration and the "Piano Quintet" arrangement gives us yet a third work, this beginning with great mystery and following through with a singing modern quality, both jaunty and expressive. Ewa Kupiec takes on the piano part convincingly, which as arranged now seems more concerted than it might otherwise sound in the original quintet version.

Smolij and the Capella come through with interpretations of great dash and panache, plus a sensitivity toward the brittle lyric qualities that also set Bacewicz off as something special.

This is prime Bacewicz, done with the spirit the music demands. It is an excellent recording. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Deep Listening Band, Dunrobin Sonic Gems

There are improvisatory outfits that engage in a fully improvisational approach who nevertheless form in the main a part of the new music covered on these pages. AMM and MEV are well-known outfits who became known especially in the '60s. Another is the Deep Listening Band, who celebrated their 25th anniversary in October 2013 with a concert in Ottawa that is now out on CD as Dunrobin Sonic Gems, subtitled "A Live Recording Simulating the Cistern Acoustics" (Deep Listening Institute 47-2014). A word of explanation: the original Deep Listening album was recorded live in 1988 inside the Dan Harpole Cistern, a remarkable acoustic environment that naturally produces sustained reverberations of 45 seconds. That acoustical environment is electronically recreated for this concert by Jonas Braasch. This recording reproduces what was heard at Dunrobin Sonic Gym. It is a performance of the band's work-in-progress, "Sonic Gems."

The two key members of the band over the 25 years of its existence are composer-accordionist Pauline Oliveros and trombonist-composer Stuart Dempster, both names that should be familiar to anyone who listens to new music in any depth. David Gamper was a third long-time member who passed away, sadly, in 2011, for whom the recording is dedicated.

The band includes a number of guests in Jonas Braasch on saxophone in addition to the acoustic modelling, Jesse Stewart on percussion, Johannes Welsch on gongs, and IONE on opening incantation.

Though there is collective improvisation as an important part of this music, it is guided by the sorts of sounds that work in such an extraordinary acoustic world. How much is generally pre-planned I cannot say, but most certainly the heightened musical instincts of the band play a key part, and also that the music has a definite flow to it that implies structural elements, in whatever way they may be realized.

In the end you surrender to the magic of the musical world created and let it envelop your senses. The long sustains allow the music to blossom forth with sound that is remarkably full at times for the size of the ensemble, at other times there is a sacred, intimate quietude no less captivating. In any case "deep listening" between the musicians and between the band and the audience, which includes us, is maximized in ways that make one feel a part of something cosmically larger than what one experiences in ordinary life.

The original 1989 recording in the cistern set the tone for the music we hear. Some 25 years later the sounds continue to grow in a profound sense.

This is music to take you both inside and outside your normal plane of being. It is more than just ambient. It is cosmic.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hilary Tann, Musical Landscapes

Some music lately has taken an unabashed turn to tonal beauty. That is true of the music of Hilary Tann, as heard in chamber works on Musical Landscapes (Centaur 3357). On it we experience eight short to mid-length works written by Ms. Tann between 1984 and 2012. The works are for configurations of violin, cello and piano, alone and in various groupings.

The works sometimes refer backwards to earlier styles, from Gregorian Chant onwards, but nevertheless the musical syntax has the stamp of Hilary Tann on it throughout. Perhaps post-romantic radical tonality might be a way of thinking of the music. There is a "beyond" quality that speaks to our own times in an original way. Pianists Eunmi Ko and Albert Kim, violinist Sini Virtanen and cellist Andrew Barnhart bring out the expressive eloquence of the music with care and heartful feeling.

There is an introspective restraint at times that puts the listener in a sort of dream landscape very pleasant to experience. But the music has underlying sinew and substance.

I am captivated by the program and recommended it to you who seek new avenues in tonality today. It charms consistently without pandering in the slightest. New age it isn't. Our age it is.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Anders Koppel, Marimba Concertos, Bednarska, Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Christensen

One hundred years ago the marimba was very much a rarity in classical music. Nowadays it is a staple of many percussion sections and an important member of some chamber ensembles. There are also solo pieces and concertos. Probably nobody else has done as much for the marimba concerto as composer Anders Koppel (b. 1947). There are four concertos to date, all of which can be heard on the recent volume Marimba Concertos (Da Capo 6.220595). Marimba soloist Marianna Bednarska joints the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen for Concertos 1-4 plus a short two-minute cadenza "P.S. to a Concerto."

Koppel's music is filled with lively strait-moving momentum. Tonality is a key feature but not especially neo-anything as much as contemporary. There are slow movements here and there and a general emphasis on memorable virtuosity in the marimba part. The orchestra essentially appears mostly in a supporting role, with counterparts and thematic roles almost always in direct complement to the intricate marimba parts. The concertos are all rather recent, having been written between 1995 and 2006. They sound as fresh as they are.

Marianna Bednarska does a great job as the soloist, giving us performances with the dash and flourish one might expect. She is nearly always in motion and it is clear she was thoroughly prepared to shine as she does. The orchestra does a fine job as the perfect foil and contrasting voice in the music. There are times when the music has almost a rock feel, other times the motion suggests Asian and African and of course European elements, but all of it has an unmistakable Koppel imprint to it.

It is most essential listening for anybody with an interest in the marimba in contemporary music. But it is quite engaging and enjoyable in its own right.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Lyatoshynsky, Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, "Slavonic," Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra, Theodore Kuchar

Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968) is considered the father of modern Ukrainian classical music. He wrote five symphonies during his active career. They were recorded by the Ukrainian State Symphony under Theodore Kuchar and released in three volumes some time ago on Marco Polo. They are back in print on Naxos now. I covered the second volume here (Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3) the other day. I am back with the final volume, containing Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, "Slavonic" (Naxos 8.555580).

I am happy to say that whatever reservations I may have had about the middle symphonies I do not have for the final two. The Ukrainian organization under Kuchar once again give us spirited readings, and this time thematic elements stand out in memorable fashion. Both were written late in Lyatoshynsky's career (1963 and 1965-66, respectively) and show a deft combination of expressive tonal modernism and Ukrainian folk elements. The way Lyatoshynsky puts all of it together shows the stamp of originality. There is no mistaking this music for somebody else's.

There are moments of dramatic upheaval, such as the opening movement from No. 4, reflective moments, generally in the inner movements, and some great thematic elements, such as the infectiously jaunty dance-folk motive taken up in the first movement by the orchestra as a set of developed variations and reprised more literally on chimes in the finale of No. 5.

It is music that makes its mark on your listening mind as it shows a mastery of the orchestral idiom. This is Lyatoshynsky at his best. Any Slavophile, anyone interested in Eastern European modern music will find this disk both very enlightening and enjoyable.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Anna Gourari, Visions Fugitives, Piano Music of Prokofiev, Medtner, Chopin

The mid-19th to early-20th centuries were in many ways the golden years for solo piano music of a thoroughly poetic pedigree. Beethoven set the bar high in his piano sonatas and the rest followed. Anna Gourari has a deep sense of those poetics and conveys to us how they lay out with three paradigmatic works on her album Visions Fugitives (ECM New Series B0017622-02).

This is her second ECM album, following on the triumph of her first (type her name in the search box for my review of the earlier one).

Prokofiev (1891-1953) provides the centerpiece of the program with the early modern masterpiece Visions Fugitives, a 20-movement, widely shifting series of "fleeting visions" that capture a world of sensation and substance, from the sound of peeling bells to the sound of the harp, in contrastingly varying moods from gentle to sarcastic, typical of Prokofiev the melodist and creator of churning mobile structures with real life. It is a work at the center of the modern Russian School and Gourari's gifts bring the music to us in the most sensitive, atmospheric terms.

From there we get a brief chestnut from Nicolai Medtner (1880-1951), his "Fairy Tale in f minor," three brief minutes of dark charm.

And to conclude the program we have Chopin's monumental Sonata No. 3 in b minor, op. 58. He was the composer who did so much to expand pianistic poeticism in his lifetime (1810-1849), paving the way for Liszt and the Russians who followed, crafting an expressive language that in many ways is still with us. Gourari tackles the complex master sonata with fire and reflective whimsy.

Gourari triumphs on this program. She handles difficult technical parts with a speech-like continuity that flows the music wonderfully well. The Prokofiev has all the mystery and movement we could ask for. She understands his at times eccentric evocative moods and gives us a reading that glows with freshness. The Chopin has a weighted depth of feeling that neither under nor overplays the sentiments so nobly and fully, pianistically expressed.

In every way Anna Gourari brings us her brilliant interpretive skills. The Prokofiev sings, the Chopin reverberates. A beautiful recital!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nicole Lizee, Bookburners

When you think postmodern, the "anything goes" idea can have something to do with it. New instrumental combinations, new technologies, a return to tonality, though this does not always imply classical tonality, an eclectic approach to form, a disregard of separating "high" and "low" and, sometimes, the incorporation of found elements. All that serves to introduce to you Montreal-based composer Nicole Lizee and her recent CD/DVD Bookburners (Centrediscs 20514).

Ms. Lizee brings to us a full palette of sound colors and effective pomo compositional ideas, at times embodying the idea of "glitch," which involves utilizing older audio technologies in ways that involve either their intentional malfunctioning in controlled situations or their appropriation for uses they were not intended. The advent of the turntablist is an example that is widespread and needs no explanation. Nicole makes creative use of turntable virtuosity in her works at times.

The most spectacular example is the duet between a turntablist and an electric cello on the bonus DVD, for the title "Bookburners." There is here an ingenious use of selected repetitions of record sequences as motives to launch the overarching cello part. It is lyric and impressive.

"White Label Experiment" pits So Percussion with Ms. Lizee on turntables and omnichord for an adventurous environment of sound that hangs together as composition. "Ouijist" is a chamber work that haunts in its mix of alto flute, violin, double bass, omnichord and spectres.

"Son of the Man with the Golden Arms" uses percussion quartet, two electric guitars and solo drums to create a kind of exploded rock virtuosity, shards of rock identity and splinters of sound hanging together in a disjointed but very musically fascinating way. The drum part is tough but beautifully executed by Ben Reimer.

Finally we have from the DVD "Hitchcock Etudes" for piano and glitch. Soundtrack music and dialog are torn apart and reassembled in a disjointed melange that corresponds with Hitchcock film clips that are similarly treated in a synchronized way with the music to form a complete audio-visual glitch. On this one the seeing of it all adds a crucial element. I am not entirely sure that the audio alone would be nearly as effective. But that's the point, I guess.

In the end we have an impressive compositional program of music that stands out as exceptional, original, brittle and speaking to the sounds of the malfunctioning technology around us, turning it into art rather than the sort of cursing episodes one might find oneself in when you expect Aye-to-Bee continuity from your equipment.

She is an original, both lyrical and disembodied, innovative in her minimalist deconstruction, thoroughly a voice of today. An original voice in full-flower, in fact.

Highly recommended music.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Heitor Villa-Lobos, Symphony No. 10 "Amerindia," Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Choir, Karabtchevsky

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and his music towers over the modern musical creations of South America as Brazil's greatest composer to date, the father of modern classical Brazilian music, a genuine original who speaks to us today directly and satisfyingly. His symphonies are not very well known. There are twelve in all and the Sao Paulo Symphony under Isaac Karabtchevsky plan to record them all for Naxos. Several volumes are already completed (type in his name in the search box above for coverage here), the latest a rendering of his Symphony No. 10 "Amerindia (Sume, Father of Fathers) (Naxos 8.573243). It was written in 1954 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Sao Paulo.

It is a spectacular work of great sonic impact. The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Choir and the soloists in Leonardo Neiva, baritone, and Saulo Javan, bass, create a complex mosaic that exemplifies late orchestral Villa-Lobos at his very best. It is symphonic, yet at the same time an oratorio about the origins of the area and its early history, dealt with somewhat impressionistically but in ways totally characteristic of the later musical language of the master.

So we have the region enveloped in a state of nature, the rise of indigenous residents, the local Indians, the mythological pre-Columbian hero Sume revered by the Tamoyo, the appearance of the legendary Jesuit priest Father Anchieta and on from there.

This recording is based on a new critical edition of the symphony put together by Max Eschig for Criadores do Brasil.

The music itself reminds me most pleasingly of Villa-Lobos's later work of this period, Forest of the Amazon, originally intended as the soundtrack for the movie version of "Green Mansions" but only partially used. Like that wonderful work the Symphony No. 10 has Villa-Lobos envisioning a primal past of nature and indigenes, a choral fantasia that alludes to music of the ancient past in impressionistic ways, phantasmagorias of choral and orchestral dramatics that tend to have lively rhythmic-seismic shifts and motion. Like that work we feel the touch of the master symphonist transforming raw material influenced by his brilliant instincts into a sprawling, complex tapestry of vivid sound color and affect.

Of all the Villa-Lobos symphonies released thus far on Naxos this one stands out as a major work, a living entity of wonderful sound.

I cannot comment on how this new recording stacks up against previous ones since I have not heard them. Nonetheless I can say that Karabtchevsky and company leave nothing to be desired in their broad sweep and massive impact. It is a moving performance of a work that stands among the tallest orchestral trees planted by Villa-Lobos in his very productive lifetime.

Highly recommended.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Michael Nyman, Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial

English composer Michael Nyman has an enigmatic way about him. Every work seems to bring something unexpected to your ears. The result, for me anyway, is that there are works of his that hit me very squarely in my pleasure zone and others that do so less. It is not something that I could explain easily (especially on a Monday morning) except to say that he sometimes combines high and low and that in itself does not have directly to do with my reactions, but it is sometimes the way he does it.

Today's work holds together beautifully, for all the right reasons. It was written off and on as Nyman was composing music initially unrelated but in the midst of it all he dealt with the shock and grief following the soccer massacres of Liverpool fans in Brussels in 1985 where 41 died, and then the Hillsborough incident in 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans perished in soccer riots there.

Ultimately the music was variously transformed and added onto until this year when the Liverpool Biennial commissioned Nyman to expand the work into a fully fleshed out symphony for large orchestra, choral ensemble and mezzo-soprano. What we hear on the CD at hand is the full version. Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial (MN Records 136) gives us four contrasting sections, all coming to terms with the tragedy, in sorrow and a spirit of remembrance.

The first movement, "The Singing of the Names," features mezzo-soprano Kathryn Ridge in her role singing each of the 96 victims names to full orchestral accompaniment. It is movingly performed and written in such a way that the melodic thrust of the music, the intense and harmonically elaborate musical sequence, gives us all the feeling of grief at the senselessness. The three movements that follow are more minimalistic with repetitive structure an important element. They serve to keep both an expressive resoluteness and a mourningful sorrow alive and very much before our hearts and minds.

"Family Reflections" is the slow movement, dealing with the loss felt by the families of the victims in terms of tender anguish. It is long-formed with gently undulating repetitions in marimbas, etc., underpinning a long, winding string and choir elegy of definite beauty. "The 96" repeats a dirge like motif and the finale, "Memorial" has an unrelenting baroque-like progression that builds to a rather huge climactic outburst.

It is a piece totally worked out in harmonic tonality and as such looks slightly backwards to the sounds of classic and preclassic era requiems. Yet the intensity and continuousness of the music puts it into the post-modernist present.

Kathryn Ridge, the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, all under conductor Josep Vicent, give us their all. A very committed performance as we hear on the CD makes the work come alive. Anything less would not have had the same impact. So we get I can only presume exactly what the composer heard and it moves us greatly.

It is one of Nyman's very best works. It cannot work as background music so if you get this plan to listen and ride the waves of grief and loss it so convincingly communicates to us. Bravo!