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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Warren Lee, Touches and Traces, Piano Music By Leonard Bernstein and Tan Dun

Of course Leonard Bernstein and Tan Dun are not primarily known for their solo piano music. But they have written some very worthwhile works in that vein, some of the most interesting of which we can enjoy as very well-played by Warren Lee on the album Touches and Traces (Naxos 8.70252).

Bernstein's "Four Anniversaries" (1948) and "Five Anniversaries" (1949-51) are part of a larger series of incidental character pieces Bernstein wrote over the years to commemorate and portray select people in his life, their connection and importance to him. So we begin with a miniature for Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre, who was to become Bernstein's wife in 1955, and from there he celebrates a varied group that includes composer David Diamond and composer-pianist Lukas Foss. The music is bright and creative, exemplary of  Bernstein's quasi-neo-classic modernism of the period, very pianistic and expressive.

More formal and ambitious is his later work "Touches" (1981), which begins with a chorale that receives eight nicely conceived variations before a summing up in a final coda.

Tan Dun's "Eight Memories in Watercolor" (1978, rev. 2002) gives us a set of characteristic miniatures that function in evocative terms not unlike Bernstein's "Anniversaries," only they are stylistically more modern-impressionistic and incorporate traditional Chinese musical evocations at times, and of course reflect Tan Dun's special sensibilities. Each miniature depicts an imaged painted scene, such as "Missing Moon" and "Ancient Burial." They are like the Bernstein "Anniversaries," evocative without being overtly programmatic.

Tan Dun's "Traces" (1989 rev. 1992) is akin to Bernstein's "Touches" as a more formally serious work, in this case meant to exploit dramatic percussive figurations and long-formed sound color invocations. It is a series of impressions from a bus trip Tan Dun took through the mountainous region of Southern China.

"Dew-Fall-Drops" (2000) sets out a very ambient landscape of quiet piano sounds played with the fingertips and the pianist's nails brushing against the strings. It is the most coloristic of all the pieces, a product of Tan Dun's mature fascination with timbres and soundscapes that has been very much a part of later modernism in general but of course takes on its own significant sound characterization in Tan Dun's very original world. A hallmark of Dun's later approach is here reduced to a set of gestural essentials inextricably intertwined with the modern piano and what it can do.

The music in sum gives us Bernstein and Dun in a series of somewhat spontaneous sketches, then in more carefully long-formed attention to possibilities of piano expression. They understandably contrast in their stylistic approaches yet both show a pronounced affinity with the piano as a special vehicle for their fertile, inventive musical ideas.

Warren Lee brings to us a beautifully poetic approach to each composer's take on their 20th century world. All the subtleties and dynamic nuances of the works come to us readily in Lee's hands, so that there is in all cases a synergy of musical idea and poetical execution that allows us to experience each work in near ideal terms.

Musical gems, finely performed. It is a beguiling program, two versions of piano modernism on display in all their contrastive originality.

Very recommended.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Robert Fuchs, Symphonies 1 & 2, WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln

What we know of only in later life could fill many books. Some of it is the product of the times, or the life cycle, and other things are a matter of serendipity.  My knowledge of the music of Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), the Austrian composer and educator, begins with the CD at hand, and that release is symptomatic of the times and also a certain amount of serendipity. In his lifetime he was rather well known, but nowadays that is not very much so. The indefatigable activities of musicologists and performers of the present day have to do with the revival of more obscure figures, and that I happened upon this volume, Fuch's Symphonies 1 & 2 (WDR CPO 777 830-2) is also somewhat serendipitous. I choose to review it because I did NOT know the music. The WDR chose to perform and record these works because they wished to create new appreciation of the composer today. And that's all a good thing.

Robert Fuchs taught music theory for many years at the Vienna Conservatory. His pupils included Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Jean Sibelius and Franz Schmidt, an extraordinarily impressive list. His compositions were respected and hailed.

After a couple of student symphonies his official "Symphony No. 1" was premiered by Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1884. Reactions were somewhat mixed, but it was honored by the Beethoven Prize committee that included Brahms and Richter with the award and 500 gulden. Some three years later Fuchs finished his Second Symphony and it was a resounding success.

Looking back now we hear an "early late romantic" in budding form, with something of the endless melodic sprawl of Schubert and perhaps Bruckner, though I see no evidence of a personal knowledge of the latter in the liners, and yes something of Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn (the latter for the scherzo-ish aspects).

Both symphonies are dynamic and very well thought-out. The orchestrations are well conceived and something rather Brahmsian.

If you listen without specific expectations you do hear something of the larger structures of the Viennese Mahler, though of course you might also say that of Schubert's "Great Symphony." Nonetheless there is a certain pull forward in this music.

Do not expect much in the way of the modernism to come. Ignore all of that and you have a symphonist with something to say and the full means to say it. The WDR Sinfornieorchester Koln under Karl-Heinz Steffens bring us nicely vivid readings, with plenty of nuance and detailed articulations to give us the Fuchs compositional outlook of his early period in full light.

It has much to recommend it and fills out our knowledge of the Viennese scene in those heady days.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Boris Blacher, Klassik aus Berlin, Box Set

Time and circumstance can do unfortunate things to a composer's reputation. Take Boris Blacher. His music was banned from performance in Germany during the Nazi period and he was anathema, principally because of family Jewishness but also for his supposed "degeneracy," since Hitler condemned anything modern as anti-Reichian and depraved.

In early post WWII Germany Blacher music was celebrated and readily heard. Recordings of his music were issued in Europe and reissued in the States. (I found some of them in my used record hunting days.) He was considered a key voice in the music. Then bit by bit, the Darmstadt School as epitomized by Stockhausen came to the forefront, while Blacher's reputation gradually diminished, until today, when he is virtually forgotten.

Happily, a step toward his deserved revival has been taken in the new box set Blacher (Phil. harmonie 06029), a two-CD or multiple 10" LP set devoted to Blacher's chamber music along with some representative fellow Berliners who fared poorly in the Nazi period yet deserve our approval today, namely Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau and Kurt Weill. The works span a long period between 1920 and 1975, covering the Weimer, Nazi and post-war years. The performances are stellar, including Boris's wife Gerty Herzog on piano, his son Kolja Blacher on violin and a gathering of others.

This is chamber music of real worth, played with understanding and devotion. The booklet that comes with the set gives us valuable biographical-historical information, sets the scene and makes the case for the revival set in motion here.

Blacher's orchestral music is no less worthy from what I have heard of it, so attention to that part of his oeuvre is now due as well.

Anyone with an interest in and love of classical modernism will find this set very deserving of consideration. It revives for us a stylistic and craftsman-brilliance from those who for the most part have gone out of fashion, but are due for a happy reconsideration. A chamber modernist essential! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Robert Schumann, Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 1 "Spring", Phantasie for Violin and Orchestra, Thomas Zehetmair, Orchestre de chambre de Paris

If I have not previously had the occasion to hear Robert Schumann's "Violin Concerto," I am perhaps not alone. It was written in 1853 along with the "Phantasie for Violin and Orchestra" for the celebrated virtuoso Joseph Joachim, yet in the end Schumann decided to withhold the Concerto from publication, having doubts about its playability.  It was not published in fact until 1937. Violinist Thomas Zehetmair gives us a beautiful reading of his revised version based on the original manuscript (the 1937 version contains numerous errors) plus the Phantasie and the "Symphony No. 1 'Spring'" under his conductorship on a new ECM recording with the Orchestra de chambre de Paris (ECM New Series 2396).

Zehetmair provides us with an emotionally exuberant version of the Concerto, with a very convincing performance-argument for the importance of the work. He is an ideal Schumann exponent which we hear readily in the Concerto and the Phantasie and then again for a stirring reading of the Spring Symphony.

The Orchestre chambre de Paris sounds inspired and motivated to bring us a Schumann that sounds less Beethovenesque than one sometimes hears. There is plenty of passion but a nice balance with the more modest-sized orchestra, so that winds get a fuller presence than one sometimes hears, the strings very much present but not ultra-dominant.

The big surprise certainly is the very convincing performance of the Concerto, yet its largess of expression fits right in with the treatment of the Spring Symphony and the Phantasie.

Surely all who appreciate Schumann will find the performance of the Concerto moving and revelatory, the other works detailed, impassioned and true-to-form. Thomas Zehetmair is a world-class artist whose loving attention to the music gives us a near ideal picture of the works as envisioned by the composer. Bravo!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Friedrich Goldmann, Four Trios One Quartet

Composer Friedrich Goldmann would have celebrated his 75th birthday last month. The Darmstadt-Stockhausen student (1959) amassed a large body of works hailed in East Germany and eventually throughout Europe and was, among many other things, a conductor of Stockhausen's Gruppen on the original celebrated DGG recording.

His music has undergone a major revival since 2009, with the entire remainder of his previously unperformed chamber and orchestral works enjoying public premieres among other things. The current release, a single CD in a lavish box presentation complete with a 48-page booklet, Four Trios One Quartet (Macro SWR2 M46) gives us his complete trios of 1986-2004 and his "Oboe Quartet" from 2000. Two of the recordings were supervised by Goldmann himself before his death; all involve musicians with intimate experience of the composer's music, including Ingo Goritzki (oboe), Bjorn Lehmann (piano) and members of Ensemble Mosaik and the KNM Ensemble.

In the end one is treated to some beautiful performances of some exceptional Goldmann works, with a high-modern rigor and purity of means, yet an open creative stance that does not show either rigidity or formulaic calcification--but rather a composer at the imaginative peak of his inventive powers.

I somehow have missed Goldmann's music--no doubt because during his tenure in East Germany not so many composers were readily heard from there in the States, either on recordings or otherwise. It turns out it was my loss as this music has very much to recommend it and in such dedicated performances as these one hears the singular voice of the composer in ideal terms.

And so I in turn do not hesitate to recommend this volume to you, my confirmed modernist readers! This is music on a high plane that even a newcomer to classic modernism might appreciate, given a little effort. So, take the plunge.

A triumph of dedication on the part of the performers, and of high creative achievement on the part of Maestro Goldmann. Bravo!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Errollyn Wallen, Photography, Orchestral Works

Living composer, UK based Errollyn Wallen has, as John Butt puts it in the liners to the album at hand, a special knack "to digest conflicting styles and ideas, close and distant, and embodying for us something of the complexity of our world." This we hear readily and purposefully in her recent Photography, Orchestral Works (NMC D221), a collection of four pieces written between 1996 and 2015. Each of these is a presentational singularity, an expressive modernity that is in the end tonal but in the expanded sense. There is drama and an approach to form in each and a quality of communicativity that gives her music the potential to be readily understood and appreciated by a broad spectrum of listeners.

She happens to be a woman of African descent, which surely is a matter of importance to her, though if one heard the music without knowing I do not think that the music would jump out at you and shout identity, though perhaps a close listen with all that in mind would reveal something of her roots culturally. To me the music speaks as music, modern classical music of an original sort, and that's as far as my ears need to go for now, as it is music not readily or primarily a music of identity unless it is of a world identity.

Indeed the works here occupy a place on the horizon of contemporary modern classical, each in its own way making a case for a particular, singular voice in a general zeitgeist of our present time. The title work "Photography" is a good place to begin, perhaps. It is a four-movement work meant to give you the feeling you have when you look at a collection of photographs more so than a single image. There are commonalities. The first movement has a dance-like quality, the second is a homage to J. S. Bach, the following movements connect to the first two as a kind of furtherance of the feeling of the music via convergences and divergences. Orchestra X under Nicholas Kok give us a good reading of it all, as they do of the "Cello Concerto" that opens the program.

Matthew Sharp is the solo cellist for the latter, happily. It all has something of the expressivity-emotive flourish of romanticism perhaps, only decidedly contemporary in the end, an abstraction that takes advantage of Sharp's way with virtuoso, rhythmic and lyrical possibilities and then in turn maps out how that relates to a rich string-orchestra backdrop. Certainly the work affirms Wallen's strong affinity with the string idiom but also her ability to construct vivid music out of such familiarity.

"In Earth" is an uncanny combination of string quartet, effects laden bass guitar and some moving vocals by the composer. It is based on early music derived harmonic movement but made very Wallen-like through an insistence and a heightening one has to hear to appreciate.

"Hunger" is played here by Ensemble X and the Continuum Ensemble under Philip Headlam. It is the first in a series of works Errollyn wrote between 1996 and 2000, each the product of a "Snapshot" in her mind of an imaginary landscape. The music has dramatic fullness that is better heard then described. It is in its very own way quite beautiful and intriguing. If there is a bit of the motor insistency of Stravinsky now and again, it is more for the benefit of a Wallenarian statement than a borrowing per se. It is an element of her vocabulary that she uses to advance her own meaningful ends.

After a fifth hearing, I am increasingly intrigued with the music, I want to hear it yet again, and then again. That is in part because Ms.Wallen's music is filled with things that resonate and give you a certain feeling of recognition that you have been to places like this before, only as you hear it all again it reveals a totality which is something much more than the first listens might suggest.

She is a modernist with her own internal compass of what seems and sounds right to her. And so we gain increasingly from exposure to it here.

Errollyn Wallen explores her own experience of the world and self in ways that make her an original. Hear this music. I strongly recommend it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Joan Tower, String Quartets Nos. 3-5, Dumbarton Quintet

Ludwig van Beethoven in his masterful late string quartets established the configuration as the one for a composer's most inner, profound, deepest musical statements. Others followed and not all of them put so much into their quartets, for indeed, such profundity is not the common lot of even the greatest practitioners, but there have been some, last century being a watermark with Bartok's, Shostakovich's and Carter's quartets attaining their own deep meanings. In the course of this blog I have suggested a few others and now we have the example of Joan Tower, in a new recording that features her String Quartets Nos. 3-5 and the Dumbarton Quintet (Naxos 8.559795), played dedicatedly and variously by the Daedalus Quartet and the Miami String Quartet, with pianist Blair McMillen joining in on the Quintet.

These are very serious works, filled with struggle and strife, but also transcendence and perhaps the elation of pure attainment. "Angels (String Quartet No. 4)" is especially moving, with its chromatic drama, its intense articulation of rapid figurations alternating with music of resolve. The tension and resolution are not a matter of tonality as much as contrasts of concentration versus open planes of relative repose.

But we can hear a sounding of inner depths  in "White Water (String Quartet No. 5)" and "Incandescent (String Quartet No. 3)" as well. All three are from the current century, No. 5 from 2012, No. 3 from 2003 and No. 4 from 2008, and they have the melodic and harmonic density of classic modernism, yet also a kind of looking back over time that in their way make them post-today, timeless in their direct grappling with the turbulence of history, if you will, and the need to come to grips with the meanings that remain to be uncovered, to be stated obliquely in musical terms.

The "Dumbarton Quintet" (2003) is no less serious and masterful, with the addition of the piano giving Ms. Tower a second, contrasting sound dialogue partner who both intermingles with the strings but then at times breaks free to engage in meta-commentary, complimentary additions and answers to the string's fervent questions, so to speak.

All of this is music of great strength, depth and seriousness. The performers give their considerable all and the results are extraordinarily moving. The quartets and quintet occupy a special place in the chamber music of our new century thus far. They are triumphant in attaining that inner place reserved for our greatest composers in those moments when they attain a supreme focus of expression.

Joan Tower is a voice of our time who manages here to give us works doubtless deserving of lasting appreciation over the times ahead. For now, though, we can savor these works as a living part of our present-day triumphs, a monumental yet inner-directed connection with our best, most transcendent selves.

Grab this release by all means!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alarm Will Sound, Presents Modernists

The superlative new music chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound comes at us with an unabashed anthology of high modernist works, humorously packaged (as you can see from the cover image above) as Alarm Will Sound Presents Modernists (Cantaloupe Music 21117). The cover art portrays a horrified couple hearing something they fear in proportion to the extent they cannot understand it. Other cover art emphasizes the Space Age of interplanetary exploration so much a part of the cultural gestalt that included the modernist phenom at its mature peak, say around 1965.

The liners talk about the average person's aversion to modernism, certainly during its height, no doubt continuing today. It is too new, there is too much that is new. On the other hand classic modernism emphasized leaving behind the past, ignoring it, embracing the avant present. That all-new, advanced unrooted innovation was of course the point, and it disturbed many people uncomfortable with the feeling of a foundationless, pure now.

So in this packaging Alarm Will Sound somewhat ironically looks back to the classic period of high modernism with six works that give us a chance to reconsider but also of course for those confirmed modernists or those at least sympathetic it gives us its own quasi-retrospective on it all.

And after all that is what this is about--something to introduce gun shy folks to modernism and some for the old hands to savor as well. We do have a program here that eschews the absolutely expected for an interesting mix of worthy pieces. Perhaps the most surprising is a Matt Marks arrangement of the Beatles' "Revolution 9," which either puzzled or intrigued those who bought the Beatles White Album back in the day. For impressionable and open-minded youths of the time, which I was one, the middle-period Beatles helped create a precedent of experimentation that opened at least some of us to the avant garde so much a part of the world then, though no doubt it also horrified some others.

This arrangement succeeds in adopting some of the loop dialog and other aspects into a modernist chamber piece. And in the end shows of course that the Beatles were delving into the modernist world with a gusto.

Another unexpected appearance is an Evan Hause arrangement of Edgar Varese's late '50s breakthrough "Poem Electronique," translating the electronic sounds into acoustic chamber equivalents. It is not so much a literal, note for note or sound for sound conversion, but rather like "Revolution 9" takes liberties and makes of it something different.

Those two bookends cradle some excellent modern chamber works that are musical modernist gems we may not be familiar with (I was not) but decidedly hold their place as representative examples. So we get Charles Wuorinen's "Big Spinoff ," Wolfgang Rihm's "Will Sound," Augusta Read Thomas' "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," and John Orfe's "Journeyman." For the Read work Kirsten Sollek and Caleb Burhans sound wonderfully well as alto and countertenor soloists, respectively.

And indeed conductor Alan Pierson and the Alarm Will Sound ensemble sound very well as a totality throughout, giving us performances that do justice to the complexities and intricacies of these works. They remind us in the process of their premiere new music chamber status, as one of the very best.

The anthology stands out as exemplary in its choice of not-so-familiar works and bold arrangements of the at least once very familiar. Those who may never have taken the plunge into high modernism will be well served in this as an introduction. Confirmed modernists will gain much with this program, too.

It's something of a must-hear release. Hear it!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tonu Korvits, Mirror

Is there an orchestral-choral school active these days that one might call "ambient"? Surely. Probably its most celebrated member is Arvo Part. The roots of such things go back to liturgical music in the Church--in Gregorian and Byzantine Chant and what developed out of it. We have a fellow Estonian today who with Part most certainly fits in with the ambient mode. He excels at it in his own way as heard in the new release of his music, Mirror (ECM New Series 2327).

We are treated to six of Korvits' works, all of which give us some remarkably resonant music in the hands of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Tonu Kaljuste, with solo appearances by Anja Lechner on cello, Kadri Voorand, voice, and the composer on kannel, a stringed zither-like instrument.

The music as a whole, notes Paul Griffith in the liners, has much to do with Korvits' own channeling of the Estonian choral tradition, especially as practiced by his predecessor Veljo Tormis. Be that as it may we who are on the outside of that tradition get some remarkably open, spacious, cavernous strains in which the sound of the hall plays an important part in framing the sounds themselves (something of course that all cathedral-centered music shares in various ways--with Korvits it would seem to be essential to the presentation of his vision).

The six pieces by Korvits take advantage of space and sound in organically moving ways. Anja Lechner's cello acts as a kind of reflector, a commentator of sorts when she is called for, in the opening work "Reflections from a Plainland" (2013) for cello and choir, a fantasy on a song by Veljo Tormis and Paul-Eerik Rumo. The final work "Lau" (2012-13)  makes beautiful use of Lechner as the soloist rising above the strings. And "Seven Dreams of Seven Birds" (2009/rev 2012) is perhaps the most stunning of all, evoking uncanny passages for cello, choir and strings with a very ethereal result.

The second work, "Labyrinth" (2010),  is a seven-part suite for strings. It gives us the purely instrumental aspects of Korvits in very pleasing ways.

In all the program has a good deal of contrast, variety, beauty and a very imaginative approach to the possibilities of ambience.

I found the music grew within the listening me as I listened repeatedly over time. As I began catching the inner details on the music on later listens the whole of the Korvits way blossomed out in ever more luxurious bloom. This is music that has an otherworldly presence for even a casual listen, but reveals its structural form and musical worth increasingly as one listens.

I do not hesitate to recommend this album to anyone seeking the possibilities of renewal outside of one's customary musical habits. Korvits is an original and an extraordinarily interesting one at that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Paul Bowles, Complete Piano Works I, The Invencia Piano Duo

Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was that most rare of humans, an extraordinary creative writer and a composer of real originality. The Sheltering Sky and other works are classics of 20th century literature; his compositions were what he was first known for but have mostly fallen into eclipse until now. His Complete Piano Works I (Naxos 8.559786) should give present-day listeners the chance to hear some of his music, some of his best, as played with sensitivity and care by the Invencia Piano Trio. I believe that those who don't know the music will be in for a very pleasant surprise.

For Bowles' piano music identifies him as a largely tonal, faux naive practitioner, an American Satie with his own straightforward yet very poetic and sometimes impressionistically sophisticated melodic-harmonic approach. We hear ten of his works, plus two very short musical tributes by Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thompson, respectively.

The music ranges from Latin-American influenced, folksy Americana or otherwise vibrantly lively and/or lyrical character studies and a more formal "Sonata for Two Pianos" that sound refreshingly unpretentious yet disarmingly brilliant. Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn (the Invencia Trio) play the two-piano works with a togetherness of subtle nuance and then take turns performing the solo works in this volume.

This first volume gives us a rousing sendoff that makes us eager for the second. If you seek a change of pace in your listening, this one will give you a delightful break from heavier fare. It is timeless yet in its own way modern in a sort of guileless, naturalist way. Very much recommended!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Miranda Cuckson, Blair McMillen, Bartok, Schittke, Lutoslawski

The talented and extraordinarily accomplished violinist Miranda Cuckson makes her ECM New Series debut with pianist Blair McMillen and a brace of three Slavic masterworks (ECM New Series 2446). The works here presented are without exaggeration three cornerstones of the modern repertoire for violin and piano: Bela Bartok's "Violin Sonata No. 2" (1922), Alfred Schnittke's "Violin Sonata No. 2 'Quasi una Sonata'" (1968) and Witold Lutoslawski's "Partita for Violin and Piano" (1984).

Each of these works combines in its very own way brilliant melodic-harmonic light, dramatic expressivity and a self-consciously wayward nod to tradition within a high modernist framework. They demand much of the violinist, much of the pianist, and in the process create when in the right hands a singular music forged in the foundry of strife, courage and boldness.

In the hands of Cuckson and McMillen they soar with impeccable precision, verve and elan. The violin parts demand much especially, and Ms. Cuckson triumphs, rising to each challenge with extraordinary dash and conviction. Clearly there is the sort of affinity between performer and composition that is temperamentally deep. Ms. Cuckson, in her words, revels in "the dark-hued tones and harmonies, the mordant wit, the detailed shaping of folk ornamentation."

Cuckson has made a name for herself as an unparalleled interpreter of the many shades of modernism with acclaimed performances of Nono, Korngold, Sessions, Carter, Xenakis, Shapey, Hersh, among others.

The insightful interpretations of the three works on this album will no doubt serve as present-day benchmarks of excellence for future performers to come. They are extraordinary, a triumph both for Cuckson and McMillen. Molto bravo!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dalmatica, Chants of the Adriatic

The Croatian coastal region of Dalmatica has a history of various  global influences ebbing and flowing with periodic war and strife. In the end it left the region with a rich musical treasure trove of medieval liturgical music that incorporates in local ways both Catholic and Byzantine music strands.

The four female singers of Dialogos under Katarina Livljanic and the group of male traditional Croatian cantors, Kantaduri, under Josko Caleta, join forces for a fascinating journey into rare Latin manuscripts, oral tradition and the polyphonic Glagolithic chants of the area. They cover by disparate examples the holy season spanning the time of Advent through to Holy Week. All this on the splendid album Dalmatica, From Oral to Written Transmission: Chants of the Adriatic (Arcana 395).

The collection is endlessly absorbing, indeed at times showing an original fusing of East and West and a medieval-and-beyond primality. There is plenty of polyphony, monodic plainchant, archaic harmonizations and a strong Byzantine influence.

There is a wealth of examples that are inimitable, unexpected, and quite beautiful in the hands of the talented and mellifluous singers. This is something special, experienced in the hearing much more so than in the telling.

I will thus leave off attempting to describe in detail the many musical ins-and-outs to be heard. Instead I will heartily recommend you listen closely and repeatedly to this offering. It is most assuredly a different confluence of early music liturgical possibilities, excellently presented.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Eighth Blackbird, Hand Eye, Sleeping Giant Composer's Collective

From the award-winning world-class contemporary chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird comes their latest recording, Hand Eye (Cedille 90000 162), a riveting collection of eight short to fairly short compositions by the composer's collective Sleeping Giant. Like Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, it is music directly inspired by a contemporary visual art collection, in this case works contained in the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art. Each composer chose a particular work as the catalyst for his/her piece.

The music runs together nicely as a continuous whole, as movement within a larger totality. And so we get Timo Andres' "Checkered Shade," based on a pen-and-ink abstraction by Astrid Bowlby; Andrew Norman's "Mine, Mime, Meme," inspired by rAndom International's installation "Audience;" Robert Honstein's "Conduit," engaging with a digital interactive sculpture by Zigelbaum and Coelho; Christopher Cerrone's "South Catalina" takes inspiration from rAndom International's interactive "Swarm," while also capturing the composer's reaction to the intense brightness of the sun during Southern California's winters after experiencing the more dreary East Coast variants; then there is Ted Hearne's "By-By Huey," an interpretation of Robert Arneson's painting "Bye-Bye Huey P." depicting Huey Newton's murderer Tyrone Robinson; and finally Jacob Cooper's "Cast," which is informed by and forms an analogue equivalent to Leonardo Drew's paper casts of everyday objects.

The ultimate effect is of something seminal, a romp through a series of many faceted works iconically post-modern, elementally, radically tonal at times, always filled with vivid tone-color painting, distinctive parts of an ultra-contemporary whole.

Nothing sounds derivative, nothing settles into minimalist orthodoxy, but instead ever sets about creating novel and musically rich dwellings for us to inhabit for a short while, only to move on to the next. It is music most originally conceived by Sleeping Giant and superbly performed by Eighth Blackbird.

If someone were to ask me, "what does the latest contemporary classical modern music sound like?" I would likely put this on for them for starters. It is a most wonderful synthesis of convergent trends in new music today, one of a handful of iconic examples of where we may be headed in the musical future.

Needless to say I would strongly recommend this one to you if you want to keep abreast of what's good about the newest of the new.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Giacomo Fiore, Colors: Modern Music for Guitar

I reviewed Giocomo Fiore's impressive IV: American Electric Guitars LP this past April 11, 2016 on these pages. I am back today with another, his 2011 Colors: Modern Music for Guitar (GFCD 2011).

It is an excellent example of some fine acoustic/classical guitar compositions played with great artistry and logic. Unlike the piano, as I've complained in the past, the guitar does not have all the notes set out for you sequentially from left to right, unless you play on only one string! So the modern, noteful expansion of possibilities perhaps requires more spatial reorientations for the guitarist from the start. The initial getting of all the notes right, expressively as called for, perhaps requires more initial toil, at first, assuming he or she comes to the instrument with a previous accretion of scalular and chordal residues that modern music may partly or wholly abandon. Then of course the challenge is to use your artistry to make the music make sense, in phrasings and colorations, to bring out the essence of the music. (And that is not to say that playing modern music on the piano is easy in itself, but there are different initial demands physically.)

Needless to say Giacomo Fiore is a truly gifted exponent of interpreting modern music for the guitar. So here as examples we have four exceptional works that make their own demands on the artist. Giacomo provides us with interpretations that sound beautifully logical, flowing naturally with the phrasing and artful sort of varied attacks that make of each something special and expressively comprehensible on the highest levels. Colors is an especially apt title for this CD, as we experience a wealth of it thanks to Fiore's performances.

The least traditional modernist-classicist of the four works is, understandably, Lou Harrison's 2002 "Scenes from Nek Chand," which calls for untempered tuning and is played by a special resonator guitar refretted to allow for Harrison's just intonation. It has the Harrison expressive charm of a new world music and gets a fully impeccable and characteristic performance.

The three other works at hand call for the standard classical, nylon stringed guitar and are each in their own way icons of the modern repertoire. Benjamin Britten gives us some unforgettably melodic-modern revisitations of early music implications on "Nocturnal After John Dowland" (1963). It is performed with a dynamic and lyrical thrust I have never heard the equal of, personally.

So too we get some exceptional performance interpretations of Toru Takemitsu's "All in Twilight" (1988) and Michael Tippett's "The Blue Guitar" (1983), both giving us music that challenges the artist to present a coherency out of the many strands of musical figurations each composer juxtaposes.

In the end we get a hugely successful and moving recital from a guitarist of supreme artistry, a totally conversant medium for the music of today and just yesterday. Giacomo Fiore is the real thing! Do not hesitate to find this one, all you who appreciate the guitar extremely well played and the modernist adventurists who seek new some gems played with exceptional facility. Very recommended.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Laura Metcalf, First Day, with Matei Varga

Laura Metcalf appears before us in all her cello warmth and virtuosity on the recent album First Day (Sono Luminus 92201). It is a unified program of vivid short works, most from the 20th century with a couple from the present-day, and a baroque perennial. They give her and pianist collaborator Matei Vargas plenty of expressive and lively music.

Ms. Metcalf has a beautiful tone, a projecting sense of line and an extroverted joie de vivre that matches the repertoire very nicely. The lesser known contemporary works--Jose Bragato's "Gracia y Buenos Aires," Caleb Burhans' "Phantasie" and Dan Visconti's bluesy "Hard-knock Stomp" blend right in with the more familiar fare. All give Laura a chance to soar rhapsodically with a goodly amount of that exotic minor flavor we associate with Eastern European and Spanish/Spanish-Latin American music.

So Ms. Metcalf seems just right for Martinu's "Variations on a Slovakian Theme," Ginastera's "Pampeana No. 2, Op. 21," Enescu's "Sonata in F Minor," Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour" (where we get a taste of her lovely voice as well), and an especially soaring version of Marin Marais (1656-1728) and his beautiful "Variations on 'La Folia'."

Laura Metcalf brings us a sense of assuredness and a projectively dramatic way that is forwarded wonderfully by Matei Varga. It is a most beautiful recital that proclaims Laura's arrival as a major present-day cellist.

It is something to revel in, surely. Molto bravo!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Network, Puts / Britten / Mahler / Bryant, The Ohio State University Wind Symphony, Russel C. Mikkelson

Wind band. Anybody who participated in such ensembles in high school and/or college may right now be recalling one or more of the annual spring concerts. My high school was blessed with gifted music teachers and we had a good band, considering we were novices. The spring concert was a chance to be ambitious and play some things that were sophisticated and called for all our concentration. As rewarding as it all was, we never came within a continent to the Ohio State University Wind Symphony, who under director Russel C. Mikkelson give us some superlative performances of 20th and 21st century works on Network (Naxos 8.573446). They not only sound great, they have chosen a program that keeps you energized and interested.

Four varied but somehow mutually reinforcing works flow smoothly on the program. The sequence is bookended by two cutting-edge 21st century works, in between which we get to hear some nicely done classics by no means common to wind band repertoire. One is a wind band arrangement of one of Mahler's Ruckert Songs, Um Mitternacht (At Midnight), with mezzo-soprano Katherine Rohrer nicely prevailing. Along with this we get a  suite from Benjamin Britten's rather rare incidental music "The Sword in the Stone" (1939), which was performed as part of the BBC radio play dramatization of T. H. White's story broadcast on the "Children's Hour." It shows us the somewhat playful, beautifully descriptive side of the composer we get so nicely in Britten's opera scores as well.

The beginning of the program concentrates on the title work "Network," a dramatic opus by the Pulitzer Prize winning Keven Puts. It was composed in 1997 and revised in 2003. It is all based on a "frantic eight-voice canon," that in various full or partial forms repeats itself throughout the work. The addition of sharps and flats at various points becomes a way to vary the music in color and sound, and the composer uses these changes to let the music evolve and shift like clouds on a windy day. It is bracing music, played brilliantly.

Steven Bryant's ambitious "Concerto for Wind Ensemble" (2007-2010) concludes the program with an involved, 35 minute work with multiple shifting moods and modes. The composer's overall intention was to "depict virtuosity" and that he certainly does, with a myriad of heroically inspired passages in vivid orchestration, embodying both difficulty and transcendance.

So that's the story with this release. It comprises some brilliant performances of works beautiful to hear in the wind band context, music that holds its own with anything out there, covering a vast span of time from the late romantic to the post-modern, and doing so with a non-compromising accessibility that should appeal to music lovers of all stripes.

An impressive outing. Very recommended.

Friday, May 6, 2016

James Wood, Cloud-Polyphonies, Tongues of Fire

So, James Wood? Yes. A very much living composer who gives us his compositions Cloud-Polyphonies and Tongues of Fire in a recent recording (NMC Recordings D223). Judging from the provenance of  the NMC label he is British born, and so the liner biography all but affirms. He began his career as conductor of the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, then founded the New London Chamber Choir whose new music affiliations began under his directorship.  1982 to 1984 found him as director of percussion studies in the Internationale Ferienkurse in Darmstadt. He founded the Center for Microtonal Music and its ensemble Critical Band in the 1990s. In 2007 he migrated permanently to Germany where he composes and conducts on a freelance basis.

The two works have dramatic clout.

"Tongues of Fire" features the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir and the Ear Massage Percussion Quartet under the composer's tutelage for some primal choral music that has the kind of pre-AD feel of later Carl Orff, a ritualized, quasi-primitive dynamic that goes its own way with considerable impact.

"Cloud-Polyphonies" gets intensive and effective treatment by the Yale Percussion Group under Robert Van Sice. It lives up to its name with masses of mallet instruments in varying combinations creating ambient clusters of non-periodic, sensual swarms of sound. Piano and non-pitched percussion have contrasting moments with their own cloud formations. The drumming aspect of the ensemble emerges nicely with some bracing pulsations. This is vibrant, vital music that reminds us of the legacy of Xenakis in thinking of percussion ensembles as sound color densities and timbral tapestries. Yet there is much Wood originality to discern in this work. He has a personal approach and a notable dedication to artfully designed masses of sounds. The piece is landmark for its long-form excitement and mood matrices.

Anyone with a sense of modern new music adventure will no doubt respond to this compendium of Wood works. It is gratifying and stimulating fare, performed with a dramatic sense of detail sculpting. Here is a vital new music figure well worth hearing.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sebastiano Meloni, Moods and Sketches, 12 Improvisations for Piano

Improvisation on the keyboard was very much expected of the leading classical musical minds in earlier years. And what came about was framed by the compositional practices of the time. So Johann Sebastian Bach might improvise elaborate fugues based on a particular theme; Mozart was known to create brilliant variations spontaneously on a theme given to him at the spur-of-the-moment. Fantasias were possible and were another, more free option, but of course what came out was something the composer might have more carefully worked over in a formal composition. There were definite resonances between the improvised and the composed.

Today's new music pianists may be called upon to improvise, and again, what comes out has some relation to what they might sit down and compose. It is interesting to compare the avant jazz composers and their improvisations with what the avant classical players might invent. The basic language may be different, though there are intersections with what a Keith Jarrett might do freely and what a classicist tends towards. In the pure realm of jazz, Charlie Parker's compositions were closely related to what he improvised, for example.

All this serves to introduce pianist-composer Sebastiano Meloni and his album Moods and Sketches: 12 Improvisations for Piano (Big Round 8945). Maestro Meloni sets about to give us a series of intriguing and stimulating spontaneities. As stated in the liners, he "often decide[s] which forms, sounds, timbres or registers [he is] going to explore ahead of time. [His] purpose is to make atonal improvisations a compositional language, which means strict rules and attention to form."  And so you tend to hear in his musical musings something a bit more structured than what a jazz player would do when playing "totally free." But in the end someone like a Cecil Taylor or a Connie Crothers plays freely in structured ways as well, only the language is somewhat different. There is a lineage that differs and so the music generally differs as well.

In a general way this may be somewhat moot when experiencing Meloni's album. For the music that results is fascinating and beautiful, not meant to be listened to analytically so much as appreciated for the flow and expressiveness of the various segments. Yet the symbiosis still holds.

And so also whether you listen to this album from the perspective of the jazz or the classical camps, or both, you find yourself reveling in the sheer inventive brilliance of the music. Meloni has a rich musical mind that can and does find fertile territory wherever he turns. It is modern in result, but richly lyrical and impressionistic at the same time.

An excellent performance. I do very much recommend you listen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Larry Polansky, Four-Voice Canons

Today I catch up with a Cold Blue release from several years ago (CB0011) that retains my interest and shows no sign of aging. It is a disk by composer Larry Polansky called Four-Voice Canons. The album  features performances by various personages, some of them taking the form of collaborations, others functioning more in the composer vs. performer realm. All are canons by virtue of having counterpoint from four distinct voices, whether that be human voices talking, reciting or singing, natural and electronically altered sounds and/or conventional instruments. There is an imitative element oftimes, sometimes in ways not readily clear at first, others more overt. Still others have more pointillistic entries and exits by the various voices so that the canon idea is expanded into less traditionally classic interactive ways.

Each of the 15 examples included here is unique in itself. The range of sound sources and corresponding  atmospherics can vary widely. So we get solo marimba, a gamelan instrument, fretless electric guitar, the voice-patter of a child or a group of adolescents saying specific words to form a contrapuntal tapestry via electronic alteration, a chamber choral number by New York Voices,  and so forth.

Some utilize noise or unpitched sounds, others are in a sort of radical tonality mode, still others utilize extra-diatonic tones. All are situated within a spectrum of a postmodern-meets-classical-modernist diversity.

There is much that piques your ears via sheer inventive imagination. Many of the canons grow in stature as you listen repeatedly. Some form interludic segmentation as a part of the whole, and perhaps have something less than iconic interest in themselves after many hearings.

Polansky and his collaborators/participants manage to redefine how we think of canonical form and in the process give us a lively potpourri of brief pieces that encapsule a diverse array of possibilities and keep the ears interested.

It may not be a landmark offering of the new century but it grabs you and sends you over a vast terrain of sound landscapes with a consistently imaginative approach. It is at all times an interesting and provocative listen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Danish String Quartet, Thomas Ades, Per Norgard, Hans Abrahamsen

An excellent string quartet graces our presence today with three lesser-known yet blockbuster modern works. It is the Danish String Quartet playing Thomas Ades, Per Norgard, Hans Abrahamsen (ECM New Series 2453). Each of the works was written when the respective composer was still relatively young, in his 20s. Each shows a vibrant sonarity and a strong sense of form; each shares a kind of modern, youthful expressive quality that the Danish String Quartet brings out with lyrical care and fine detail.

Thomas Ades' "Arcadiana for string quartet, op. 12" (1994), Per Norgard's "Quartetto Breve, String Quartet No. 1" (1952), and Hans Abrahamsen's "10 Preludes, String Quartet No. 1" (1973), span a fairly vast period of time and yet share a basically tonal but modern coloristic palette, a sense of the lyrically dramatic, a singing quality and a modern choice of widely varying harmonic possibilities.

The Danish String Quartet shows us masterfully coherent readings of the works, a syntactical flowering born of strict attention to the dynamic and coloristic demands of each composer and the quartet's own artistic togetherness of purpose.

It is a tribute to the outstanding artistry of the Danish String Quartet. The performances help us experience directly the subtleties of these works. Very recommended.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Ensemble Reconsil, Exploring the World, Roland Freisitzer

Today's offering may not be for everybody. Probably NOTHING is that. It is a 14-volume CD box set that was recording during a series of concerts by the talented and dedicated large chamber Ensemble Reconsil, Roland Freisitzer conducting. Exploring the World (Orlando Records 0014) devotes a CD each to 14 countries. Every disk gives us five or so chamber works in a high modern/postmodern vein, featuring three mostly very recent compositions (this decade) by composers from that country, plus a couple of works by new Austrian composers, as Ensemble Reconcil has their home base there. The composers are of the younger generation in the main. A wealth of compositional approaches and sonic results are on display, all of definite interest.

One disk each represents the US, Australia, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, Argentina, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, Hong Kong, Brazil, South Korea and Japan.

Everything from post-minimalism to post-Darmstadt to new expressionism can be found in this veritable cornucopia of contemporary modernism. The performances are very good to smashing and in the end you get an incredibly diverse and inclusive set of programs. It was a labor of love for all concerned, clearly.

It would take many pages to give a run down of all the composers and works involved. Suffice to say that we get a milestone survey of the newest of new music from around the globe, a host of composers and works, most of which the vast majority of us will be unfamiliar with. All the more reason to value what the ensemble has done. It is a tribute to the nearly selfless dedication of Freisitzer and Ensemble Reconsil. To seek out and give us world-class performances of such a global abundance of new music is a remarkable achievement.

It is a monumental release that will give avant new music aficionados a huge boost on understanding something of where we are today across the globe. I plan to devote much time to re-exploring it in the months ahead! Molto bravo! Get this if you can!