Search This Blog

Monday, January 30, 2017

Mieczyslav Weinberg, Chamber Symphonies, Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer

The remarkable surgency of the music of Mieczyslav Weinberg (1919-1996) continues very encouragingly. Today we have an exceptional 2-CD set by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica (ECM New Series 2538/39) that includes the later period Chamber Symphonies and an orchestration of the 1944 Piano Quintet.

This is a set of great beauty, thanks to the assured helmsmanship of Kremer, the finely contoured string parts by Kremerata Baltica and the soloists and their obvious sympathy and enthusiasm, and the exceptionally detailed soundstaging of Manfred Eicher.

The four Chamber Symphonies are some of Weinberg's most compelling forays into an unending flow of melodic-harmonic originality. They were written between 1986 and 1992, a time when he was able to compose without the threat of being labeled anti-realist and elitist that the Stalin era often enough hurled at Russia's greatest composers, to the peril of the music and their lives. Yet too the 1944 Piano Quintet, heard here in the aptly orchestrated version by Kremer and Andrei Pushkarev, manages to ring out in characteristic Weinberg fashion.

If you seek a single release to introduce yourself to Weinberg's music, I would recommend this one without hesitation. For those already initiated this is nevertheless primo Weinberg in the excellence of performances, the brilliance of  the works themselves and the superlative sound. A landmark release!

Kremerata Baltica is touring the US and Canada through February 10 in a program that includes Weinberg's "Chamber Symphony No. 4." Google Kremerata for details on dates and locations.

Friday, January 27, 2017

C.P.E. Bach, Organ Sonatas, Iain Quinn

If Johann Sebastian Bach's organ music was the sound of God, C.P.E.Bach's was more properly the sound of humanity. The fugues and toccatas of father Johann exuded a heavenly mystery; son C.P.E kept closer to earth; Johann's organ swells were a mighty roar, some of the loudest music on earth at the time; C.P.E.'s Organ Sonatas (Naxos 8.573424) had a chamber intimacy.

I've lived with these sonatas since young adulthood, on an old Arion LP by I do not remember whom. The perfomances had a classical balance and sprightly quality that I hear again happily in the new Naxos recording by Iain Quinn. We get the Sonatas H. 135, H. 85-87, and H. 134. These were written for Frederick the Great's sister Princess Anna Amalia during Bach's tenure as court composer and instrumentalist for the music-loving king.

They reflect a less-than-virtuoso ability that C.P.E. had on the organ as compared with his father (C.P.E. was more a master of the clavichord). But then again they have a beautifully ornate, lyrically robust approach that mark them as charming and uniquely memorable.

Iain Quinn gives us performances that do full justice to the music's fine architecture and lyricism.

Worth every penny at the Naxos price and a significant addition to your library.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Adam Schoenberg, American Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern

Is Adam Schoenberg the American Sibelius? Maybe. I haven't heard such ravishingly beautiful, unabashed orchestral lyricism since the Finnish master put notes to paper. That is, on Adam's new album of works American Symphony - Finding Rothko - Picture Studies (Reference RR-139 SACD).

The Kansas City Orchestra under Michael Stern gives us its fully concentrated, fully idiomatic readings of the program. They seem ideally dedicated to bringing out the music's broadly bright sonarities and subtly powerful climaxes.

There is more modernism to be heard in this music, some spicy dissonances and rhythmically exotic moments well placed amidst the poetic shimmer. And surely Schoenberg is not in any way out to copy Sibelius's unique style. But it all comes out with such a gloriously gentle and alternatingly uproarish rapture, that we experience after a few listens something akin to what we feel after hearing a mature Sibelius symphony, or perhaps Copland's glowing "Appalachian Spring."

And each work does have programmatic elements: the pastoral Americana of the symphony, the color affinities of "Finding Rothko," the art and pictorial references of the movements in "Picture Studies."

Here is a modern music that anybody might find beautiful. It has the ability to remain very approachable for almost anyone's ears. And yet there is a great deal of innovative brilliance of substance in every bar. That is rare and I might go as far to say that Adam Schoenberg is headed for a career of wide acclaim.

Hear this music by all means. It is sorely needed in our troubled times!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Shostakovich, Violin Concertos 1 & 2, Frank Peter Zimmermann, NDR Elbphilharmonic Orchester, Alan Gilbert

Some or many of the greatest composers, modern or otherwise, have left us a legacy via a significant body of works, numerous enough that it takes considerable time to absorb and digest the sum total of their creative career. With others there may be less  for whatever reason. Dmitri Shostakovich is a composer of the former type. He left for us a daunting corpus of symphonies, operas, string quartets and other chamber works, solo piano works and concertos. Getting to know well the salient features of his output can take a lifetime.

His Violin Concertos 1 & 2 (BIS 2247), now in a new recording by violin master Frank Peter Zimmermann along with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester under Alan Gilbert, are some of the must-know works.  The moodiness of the first contrasts with the section devoted to a frenzied Jewish folk dance. Zimmermann gives us an appropriately striking contrast between the two moods which are seconded in the orchestral parts, played with a zeal that matches the solo line. This version gives us an especially good bead on the frenzy, the best I've heard.

The second concerto is filled with adagios of great beauty and a less frenetic Allegro finale. And once again Zimmermann and company are up to the challenge.

In both concertos the cadenzas are spectacular in Zimmermann's hands.

All in all great works in high definition sound, played with definitive gusto and depth of feeling. If you don't have these concertos this is a version I'd definitely recommend. Those who are devoted to these concertos will also benefit much from these ultra-contemporary readings. Zimmermann has an unsentimental and very kinetic approach that Gilbert reinforces for some pretty extraordinarily moving and exciting fare.

Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Steve Reich, Double Sextet / Radio Rewrite, Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman

Here we have another nice one to celebrate Steve Reich's 80th birthday year, namely Ensemble Signal's personal take on two Reich perennials, Double Sextet / Radio Rewrite (Harmonia Mundi 907671). The "Double Sextet" dates from 2007, "Radio" from 2012.  Both works reassert Reich's rhythmic centrality while giving the harmonic-melodic subtleties of his later period a somewhat more secondary role.

Ensemble Signal and conductor Brad Lubman are very much in their element for both works. They relish the driving pulsations and pronounced accentuations of the works to give us a fully satisfying take on these gems.

As usual Reich never allows himself a banal phrase in these, and at the same time every phrase bears the stamp of his original musical identity. As always, a superior inventive brilliance distinguishes Reich from some of his colleagues and imitators. These infectiously joyful performances are a timely reminder of just why he is the most important of the so-called minimalists. Happy birthday Maestro Reich!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Debussy, Four-Hand Piano Music 2, Jean-Pierre Armengaud, Olivier Chauzu

The world is still reeling thanks to the brilliance of Debussy (1862-1918) (and for that matter, Ravel). He (they) made a decisive step away from romanticism to create a modern music that presented sophisticated, evolved harmonic directions that are still with us as an assumption whenever tonality is addressed. But Debussy also had a vision of melodic form that was embedded in the richly expanded harmonic images and subjected to a pristine poeticism. Finally he took his cue from the French composers of his time to make orchestra color something ever more evolved. His orchestrations were glorious realizations of the timbral possibilities of the instruments of the modern symphony orchestra in all their various combinations, making a clean break from the strings versus other instruments that was generally so much a part of the orchestral aportionment from at least as far back as Haydn's time.

The music was dubbed "impressionism" and indeed there was some relation between the music and the way painters like Monet handled paint color and texture. And like the impressionists in the visual arts the way was paved for a world where the materials were freed from accepted conventions of a literal depiction to a new reality, a new combination and conversation between color and timbre, which of course the modern musical world drew upon, Varese through Messiaen and many others, to create the music of today.

But Debussy was more than just an important pioneer in the creation of modernity, he was also of course the creator of a body of works that gained the enthusiasm and love of listeners from his lifetime onwards.

This perhaps is a long digression from the CD at hand today, but it is critical as a background for why the current CD is revelatory. OK, so we have a second volume of Debussy's Four-Handed Piano Music (Naxos 8.573463), as played with strength and grace by pianists Jean-Pierre Armengaud and Olivier Chauzu. I have not heard the first volume but I assume what I say is true of that volume as well.

The four-hand piano versions of the works presented here in Volume Two are arrangements of some of the seminal orchestral works, "Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un faune" as arranged by Ravel, "La Mer," as arranged by Debussy, and "Images" as arranged by Caplet. All  three are justly celebrated in their orchestral versions for the brilliance of their orchestrations, and the sound is so vivid in the original versions that we may pay less attention to the strictly musical--harmonic, melodic, rhythmic--qualities of the works.

The four-hand versions of course strip away all orchestral color and substitute it with pure pianism, in the process allowing us to hear clearly the very progressive harmonic-melodic substance of the works, which was quite radical for the period and comes to us in a concentrated form so we can hear it all as if for the first time. "Afternoon of a Faun" (1894) begins the program, and it certainly sounds more daring in this version today than we perhaps have heard so many times in its fully orchestrated version, where the sensuous properties of the orchestration distract us or more properly direct us to the dazzling color of the timbres.

And so it goes for the rest of the music heard here. In the end, I feel as if I have entered another musical world, where I can contemplate the advanced fundamentals of the notes themselves.

The duo plays all with a gracious poetic sense.

So for all the reasons given I do not hesitate to recommend this volume highly. It will give you a new look at the brilliance of Debussy.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Garrido-Lecca, Peruvian Suite, Norwegian Radio Sym, Ft Worth Sym Orch, Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Living Peruvian composers are not well-known to me, so when a volume of orchestral music by Celso Garrido-Lecca (b. 1926) came out lately, I jumped at the chance to hear it. Peruvian Suite (Naxos 8.573759)  includes the title suite and three others, written between 1980 and 1994.  The Forth Worth Symphony does the performance honors for one of the suites, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra for the rest, all  under the capable hands of conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. He and the orchestras provide colorful, energized readings that seem right for the scores.

Garrido-Lecca as heard in these works is vividly depictive and often Peruvian folk oriented more so than he is always modernistic. He is a good orchestrator and a master of contrasting sections that can be balladic or dance-like according to the needs of the moment. "Andean Folk Dances" begins the program with kinetically moving sections contrasting with more introspective ones. "Symphonic Tableaux" continues the mood with more ambitiously complex rhythmic movement.

"Peruvian Suite" is meant to explore the diversity of Peruvian folk elements. It does so succinctly, skillfully and rather delightfully..

The final suite "Laudes II" musically represents the thinking of Chinese Taoist Lao-Tzu. The work expresses the idea that "the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao, the name that can be named is not the eternal name."  The music is accordingly somewhat ineffable but remains filled with vibrant color in the later Garrido-Lecca manner. The final movement with its extroverted reed, horn and trumpet passages is exciting, while the other movements are abstracted and mysterious or questioning. It is a more strictly modernistic version of the composer and the most satisfyingly original of the program for me.

Is Garrido-Lecca the Peruvian Copland? It is not entirely out of the question. We have four world premiere recordings that give us a good idea of his inventive skills. Anyone with an interest in what is going on in South America in the present day will be rewarded with one good answer. It supplies some fine listening in any case.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Joaquin Rodrigo, Chamber Music with Violin, Eva Leon

The Spanish master composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) is universally known and admired for his "Concierto de Aranquez," most deservedly so. But during his long lifetime he wrote a good deal else, and we can be thankful to Naxos for releasing a good bit of it. Today we have the latest, Chamber Music with Violin (Naxos 8.572648), which showcases the extroverted Eva Leon on violin, in one unaccompanied solo work, one work for violin and guitar (Virginia Luque) and four works for violin and piano (Olga Vinokur). The  music covers a good span of Rodrigo's career, from 1923 to 1982.

Like "Aranquez," these pieces combine Rodrigo's strong melodic sensibilities with Spanish folk flavors and a sort of Spanish impressionist horizon, but they do so in ways more suited to the intimate chamber setting.

The works stand out in their own way as paradigmatic Rodrigo.

"Sonata pimpante" (1966) has a sparkling palette of cascading piano and exuberant violin in an unforgettable mix. "Set cancons valencianes" (1982) is steeped in Spanish folk roots with seven movements that captivate. The "Capriccio (Ofrenda a Sarasate)" (1944) has heroic unaccompanied fireworks unencumbered by the constraints of counterlines from chamber accompaniments.

The final three works continue the melodic evocations and folk strains, with guitar accompaniment on "Serenata al alba del dia" (1982); and a return to the piano as second instrument on the short but striking works "Dos esbozos" (1923) and "Rumaniana" (1943).

We are left after hearing this program with the distinct impression that Rodrigo was no one-trick pony, but rather a thorough craftsman and superb lyric Spanish voice throughout his career. These pieces are without fail miniature gems from a sure master of his own very original modern Spanish style.

Anyone who gravitates towards the "Spanish tinge" will find in this CD a delightful mix of memorable chamber sounds. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Berio Sinfonia, Mahler/Berio 10 Fruhe Lieder, Matthias Goerne, Synergy Vocals, BBC Symphony Josep Pons

Luciano Berio's "Sinfonia" was composed in 1968-69 to commemorate The New York Philharmonic Orchestra's 125th Anniversary. It was scored for the orchestra and eight amplified voices. The original version was in four movements and its first recording came out shortly after its premiere with the Swingle Singers and the  NY Philharmonic under the direction of Berio. This was the version I heard repeatedly and internalized. The vocalists spoke, shouted and sung, primarily quotations from Levi-Strauss' "The Raw and the Cooked" but also some Beckett and directions from Mahler's scores, among other things. The orchestral part was a wealth of quotations, especially from Mahler's 3rd "Resurrection Symphony" as well as dissonant original music. I listen to the work repeatedly, but did not exactly "get it."

Some 47-odd years have gone by. There have been other versions that included the new 5th movement but I missed them. Now we have a new version with Josep Pons conducting the Synergy Vocals and the BBC Symphony (Harmonia Mundi 902180). Most notably it is paired with Berio's orchestrations of early Mahler songs "10 Fruhe Lieder," which Berio set in 1986 and 1987.

Since the songs, some in particular, inform Mahler's 3rd Symphony, hearing all of this together on one CD mutually illuminates both works and Berio's music thinking at these critical junctures--and give us something to think about the middle-early Mahler, who himself was synthesizing his earlier musical ideas and those of the Vienna which was so much a part of his life at the time.

The "Fruhe Lieder" features the wonderful baritone of Mattias Goerne, the exceptional songs themselves and Berio's subtle orchestrations. They make a perfect prelude to the "Sinfonia," which in this performance following the Lieder makes more coherent Berio's project. The role of the "amplified" voices, in contrast to the final mix of the original recording by Berio, is not so out front, but more of an element in the great collage that is this work. The words become less critical, the music more symphonic as a whole.

In the end, Pons treatment of both, the sequencing and the overall blend is very satisfying. Partly too, this post-modern collaging is more familiar to us, both in what has come after but also in works like Cage's "Variations IV" (1963), which is an indeterminate orgy of collage that broke all the rules as only Cage might have done at the time. We have had time, some of us, to come to accept the challenge of that work via the original recorded version by Cage and Tudor. And of course as we grow older along with the modern art/visual version of such things it seems more inevitable and natural. It releases us to hear the "Sinfonia" anew.

The time for the "Sinfonia" has come, from an audience perspective but also from the viewpoint of Josep Pons and his very satisfying version.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Laszlo Lajtha, Symphony No. 2, Pecs Symphony Orchestra, Nicolas Pasquet

Laszlo Lajtha (1892-1963)? A leading Hungarian composer from the first half of the 20th century. All is the pity that many of us in the States do not know his music well. His nine symphonies and numerous string quartets are what he is most remembered for, apparently. Marco Polo released the complete cycle of symphonies with the Pecs Symphony Orchestra under Nicolas Pasquet in the '90s. They are being re-released by Naxos. Symphony No. 2 (Naxos 8.573644) has recently come out and I have been listening.

The Second is a monumentally dark, brooding symphony Lajtha wrote in 1938. It is a full-blown work, played with spirit by the Pecs Orchestra. I find myself increasingly drawn toward its modernist, Hungarian musical ethos.

Also included is the "Variations, Op. 44" (1948), the second of three works originally composed for Hillering's film version of Elliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It is notable for its long, sprawling symphonic thematics.

Is this a good introduction to Lajtha? No doubt the complete symphonic cycle is that. There is a singularity of the music on this volume and so it serves to wet one's whistle, nicely, and sets one up with expectations for the later works. And so it is worthwhile.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Discoveries

It is hard to imagine a 20th century English classical scene without Vaughan Williams. He gave us a music of beauty and power that was a huge part of what made the English rebirth possible. Symphonies, operas, tone poems, his output remains a joy to those who have delved into the music wholeheartedly.

And with the advent of the label Albion, an offshoot of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, we get to hear music that for whatever reason did not enjoy wide distribution until now. Discoveries (Albion 028) is one of the latest and best of their releases. We have the chance to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra and soloists in a program of tone poems, songs and film music that until now have been all-but forgotten, yet turn out to be vintage Vaughan Williams.

The "Three Nocturnes for Baritone and Orchestra" is an early work dating from 1908, when Ralph was studying with Ravel. One of the three movements was orchestrated; the other two have been orchestrated by Anthony Payne. The setting of Walt Whitman's poetry is something Vaughan Williams did a number of times in his lifetime. Here is a first go with a impressionism and harmonic palette similar to his "Riders to the Sea," among others. It is a hauntingly memorable work. The middle movement was long missing. This is the first recording of all three movements. Baritone Roderick Williams does a great job here.

"A Road All Paved with Stars - A Symphonic Rhapsody from the Opera The Poisoned Kiss"  (1936) is an arrangement of some of the high musical points in the opera by Adrian Williams. It is very lyrical and impassioned, nicely capturing the Vaughan Williams of that time.

"Stricken Peninsula - An Italian Rhapsody for Orchestra" was originally a film score for a short army propaganda movie about Italian reconstruction at the end of WWII. The score was lost but Philip Lane has transcribed it and rearranged it into a suite. It makes for worthwhile hearing, though perhaps not entirely earth shattering. Still, it is something worth hearing.

"Four Last Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra" were written to the poetry of his wife Ursula, Only one was performed during Ralph's lifetime. They were originally conceived for voice and piano. In Anthony Payne's orchestration they become a thing of mysterious contemplation. Jennifer Johnston sings them with great artistry.

This is music any lover of Vaughan Williams will welcome and appreciate. It is seminal collection of worthwhile obscurities that I recommend without reservation. Thank you, Albion!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Steve Reich, Duets, Kristjan Jarvi, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir

To celebrate Steve Reich's 80th birthday year there have been a number of important releases. I covered the ECM set a while back and today we consider another, Kristjan Jarvi and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir in a 2-CD set simply titled Duet (Sony Classics 88985366362). Whereas the ECM set covered the breakthrough classics in a reissue of the original versions, Duet presents some later gems for orchestra and orchestra and chorus in brand new versions.

Most important are the world premiere orchestral versions of "Daniel (Variations)" and "You Are (Variations)," two stunning works that manage to take further the interlocking pulsations of "Music for 18 Musicans," the choral polyphonic extensions of "Tehillim" and the string writing of "Four Sections."

An excellent version of the latter is included in the set, along with the short but captivating "Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra." As a kind of bonus, Steve and Kristjan give us a rousing version of the earlier "Clapping Music."

This set does for Reich's later orchestral period what the ECM set does for the breakthrough middle period, only Jarvi's versions of the works are newly minted. They are as near definitive in their own way as those ECM versions were for the older music.

This set evokes a world where Reich's post-modern rhythmic lyricism is a mature entity of supreme originality and extraordinary power. It is OUR world, a testament to the seminal importance of Reich's compositional mastery.

Unconditionally recommended! Happy 80th, Maestro Reich!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rodrigo, Serranilla, Songs with Guitar Accompaniment, Jose Ferrero, Marco Socias

Any appreciator of Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) and the Spanish folk-classical nexus will doubtless find the volume on tap today fascinating and rewarding. Serranilla, Songs with Guitar Accompaniment (Naxos 8.573548) gives us some 24 songs, sung very well by the late Jose Ferrero (1972-2016) with very appropriate guitar work by Marco Socias. The latter arranged-transcribed the guitar part (from piano versions) for some 17 of them. The rest are as Rodrigo scored them. In this set of world premiere recordings we get the melodic brilliance of Rodrigo in a Spanish folk mode and his Spanish-classical style in seven settings from "Con Antonio Machado."

These deserve a wider hearing and in the guitar accompanied versions we have especially fine vintage Rodrigo, some 60 year's worth. Everyone will recognize and appreciate his "Aranquez, ma pensee," a song setting of the principal theme from "Concierto de Aranquez." But the rest have the power to enchant as well.

The guitar and tenor combination seems just right for Rodrigo's intimate approach and the Ferrero-Socias handling of it all is very idiomatic and beautiful to experience.

A volume to savor! Well worth hearing many times.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Peter Scott Lewis, The Four Cycles

American composer Peter Scott Lewis (b. 1953) is a masterful creator of song cycles, as we readily hear in his recent offering The Four Cycles (Naxos 8.559815), which includes his complete vocal music to date. He is both modern and expressive at the same time, capable of writing in a harmonically ultra-advanced, edgy tonality or at times staying closer to a key center, his piano parts sometimes complicated, moving especially in the case of "Where the Heart is Pure (Duo Version)" (1993/2013) where Christine Abraham's  mezzo-soprano has a massive impact that the piano part (Keisuki Nakagoshi) makes tangible and modern-dramatic.

"The Changing Light" (2013) and "Five Love Motets" (2014) are scored for The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet and, for the first of these cycles,  piano (Stephen Gosling). They are beautifully conceived and performed, with a four-part counterpart-homophony that stands out as constituting some of the most accomplished chamber vocal music of our times. There is a sure hand at work and results that tintinnabulate in the ear with irresistible heft and charm.

The final "Three Songs from he Ish River" (1976-78) substitutes classical guitar (Colin McAllister) for the usual piano, and thrives on soprano Susan Narucki's delightful nuance.

This is "pure" vocal music in an international modern style. There are no obvious vernacular touches but instead a play on consonance and dissonance, almost hearkening back to the Viennese School but ultimately original and captivating in its own right.

It's a surprise and will be a joy for all attracted to the modern-day extensions of the lieder.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nicolay Medtner, Complete Piano Sonatas 2, Paul Stewart

Russian composer Nicolay Medtner (1880-1951), so the liner notes to his Complete Piano Sonatas 2 (Grand Piano 618) tell us, is more important, much more so than his reception in the West has recognized. Indeed, so the notes say, the "14 piano sonatas are considered among the most significant achievement[s] in this genre by any composer since Beethoven." Perhaps partly because the second volume contains only three sonatas, and mostly earlier ones, my ears have not quite confirmed this level of excellence as of yet.

The "Sonata-Idyll in G Major, Op. 56" (1935-37) is most striking, for sure, a kind of link between Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev or Shostakovich. And the final movement of "Sonata-Szazka in C Minor, Op. 25" (1910-11) is rather profound. The rest of that sonata and the "Sonata-Triad, Op. 11" (1904-08) strike me as very inventive, but rather what one might expect of a late romantic Russian composer of genuine talent, not quite at the level of a Beethoven.

These sorts of comparisons by rank may not be entirely necessary in the end. We listen and get what we will out of any work. If the volume 2 of complete Medtner sonatas in the end does not bear comparison to Beethoven to my mind, it does tell me that he belongs in the highest ranks of 20th century Russian composers for the piano. The music is highly lyrical, not at all modernistic in the widest sense, but very idiomatically pianistic and delightful to hear.

Paul Stewart has a poetic sensibility that seems perfect for these works. His technique, though considerable, is not worn on his sleeve but instead directed toward the most musical of readings. I recommend this volume to you and look forward to new installments. Medtner is Medtner and how ever that stacks up, this is very worthwhile piano music.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Leonard Lehrman, Joel Mandelbaum, Harmonize Your Spirit with My Calm

Today's album portrays the symbiosis between two American composers of Russian-Jewish descent. Harmonize Your Spirit with My Calm (Ravello 7951) is actually a line from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's poem but aptly alludes to the 40 year friendship between composers Leonard Lehrman and Joel Mandelbaum.

On this album we have a creative  commingling of the two: Lehrman plays on Mandelbaum's "Prelude" for solo piano, Mandelbaum conducts Lehrman's "Bloody Kansas," Lehrman plays piano on the Mandelbaum's song "Love is Not All." Plus Helene Williams, Lehrman's wife, sings songs by each of them.

Both have a distinct modern style, mostly tonal, expressive, filled with the rootedness of their backgrounds yet cosmopolitan-international too at times. Perhaps Lehrman is the spirit (modernist) and Mandelbaum is the calm (neoclassicist) but it is a fully complex dialectic going on here.

We are treated to  Mandelbaum's early (1950) solo piano "Prelude," his orchestral works "Chaconne" (1977) and "In Sainte-Chapelle" (2002), the latter based on a watercolor impression of  Revelation images from the windows of that church (the painting forms the art for the cover of this album) by his wife Ellen. We then hear Mandelbaum's briskly neo-classical "String Quartet No. 2" (1962-78) and the 1950 song "Love is Not All."

Lehrman chimes in with the cycle of "8 Russian Songs" (1970-2015) for soprano or bass-baritone and orchestra, a masterful offering, followed by the miniature "Bloody Kansas" (1976) for orchestra, and finally "An Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Love Song Cycle" (1994) for soprano and piano.

So much music, well played and sung, comparing and contrasting two interrelated styles while forming a richly satisfying program in total. This is substantial contemporary fare.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Konstellationen, Klangforum Wien, Vera Fischer

In any innovative period there are voices thought important to the time yet whose reputation goes into eclipse following his or her death. Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1919-1994) follows that trajectory. He shared the stage and recordings with the prominent serialists-high modernists of the day, Boulez, Stockhausen, etc. And his music ultimately came out of Webern, a factor in common with the Darmstadt school.

His music has not been heard all that much in recent years. Yet as the new album  Konstellationem (Kairos 0015003) makes clear, it has a vibrancy of sound color, a fragility and structural distinctness that is all his own.

The works cover his entire career, from the "String Trio" of 1948/1971 to "Morendo--double/echo for bass flute and tape" (1991/2002) (with realization of the flute part by Bernhard Lang).

The Trio gives us the first appearance of his idea of repetition and variation, already moving away somewhat from the dodecaphonic style so important to classic serialism. As we follow his music graphic notation increasingly holds sway, to introduce an aleatoric element and ultimately to create musical structure as if in a mobile. The musical content is mapped out in the scores, but timing and concordance/coincidance is left up to the players in accordance with the graphic representations in the score. Later works return to conventional notation but not without reflecting on the insights gained from the middle period.

A central work of his middle period and important enough to appear in three different versions on this album is the Konstellationem (1971), made up of 25 colored etchings featuring recurring yet differing series of markings meant to be realized by the ensemble in varying yet open ways.

The chamber group Klangforum Wien and flutist Vera Fischer give us this fascinating retrospective with fully focused detail and imagination, a labor of love. We are beckoned into Haubenstock-Ramati's special sound worlds with careful and sensitive realizations of a full spectrum of works.

It is a new look at a composer who genuinely deserves our attention and respect. No follower of high modernism can afford to do without this release. It is as seminal as it is fascinating. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Sun Most Radiant, Music from the Eton Choirbook Vol. 4

The music for the Eton College Chapel Choir in the England of the early 16th century is a wondrous thing in the hands of the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral under Stephen Darlington, at least as heard on The Sun Most Radiant, Music from The Eton Choirbook Vol. 4 (Avie 2359). On it we are treated to four works to be sung as part of the daily offices of the chapel. Three are first recordings.

The Choir of Christ Church is for these works a small chamber affair, as it would have been in Eaton Chapel. They have a vibratoless radiance and a projectively heavenly sonance that seem perfect for the music. The grouping of voices ranges from SATBarB and TTTBarb B on the two versions of John Browne's setting of "Salve regina," SATTB for William Horwood's "Gaude flore virginali," and TTBarB for William, Monk of Stratford's "Magnificat."

Stephen Darlington notes in the liners of this rewarding collection that with repeated listenings the stylistic differences of the  three composers begin to emerge. I can't say that I have not begun to hear the differences, though at this stage in my listening the masterful contrapuntal writing and exceptional performances mostly mingle together in my mind in one grand impression. But I have many listenings ahead with any luck so I look forward to that discerning stage of my ongoing ear training.

Suffice to say that this is an early music album of some sorely neglected music performed with exceptional spirit and grace. It opens up for us a phase of English choral music that has gone unappreciated for far too long.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

David Smooke, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

David Smooke exhibits his very personal approach via a new release that documents six of his compositions. Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (New Focus Recordings 173) lets us dwell at length on his avant garde new music, which retains the joy of discovery that high modernism has always espoused, but moves it along in very personal directions, using abstract sound to convey the feeling of physical journeys via configurations from large ensembles to chamber music and solo.

The title work is scored as a concerto for toy piano (Smooke) and the Peabody Wind Ensemble under Harlan Parker. It translates into music a series of tiny sculpted figures used in the Office of the Medical Examiner of Maryland to train staff in forensic science. It is a work of genuine interest and drama.

"Transgenic Fields, dusk" for solo piano expresses a long, slowly unwinding melody to overarch a series of constantly modulatiing harmonies.

"A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, Vol. 1: A to Breathing"  and "Some Details of Hell" concentrate on solo vocals, small chamber ensembles and vivid text to portray language learning in the former and the sudden loss of a loved one in the latter.

"" concentrates on a solo toy piano and a looping pedal to realize kaleidoscopic landscapes of a vividly colorful nature.

"21 Miles to Coolville" was inspired by an actual sign the composer saw continually near his apartment in Ohio. The music depicts an imaginary journey to a cool place. Multiple bassoons bring the music to us.

The program takes us on a kind of whirlwind tour of the varied sonic possibilities Smooke realizes for our contemplation. It is a music of adventure, a future-in-the-present.


Those readers who reside in the NY area may want to check out a special night at National Sawdust devoted to David Smooke's music--featuring selections and performers from this album. It all happens this January 22nd at 7pm. For more info go to

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Enjott Schneider, Shadows in the Dark

We have two concertos and a double concerto in the modern plus expanded tonal realm on today's album by Enjott Schneider (b. 1950), Shadows in the Dark (Wergo 5115 2).

"Phoenix," a mythological poem for oboe, percussion and strings, has a mysterious  beginning movement, a somewhat agitated middle movement and a finale that has a reconciliated, sturdy lyricism. Christoph Hartmann handles the virtuoso, heroic oboe part with panache; Johanness Fischer handles the equally heroic, multifaceted solo percussion part with smouldering dramatics. The Tonkunstler-Orchester with Kevin John Edusei give us a colorful, expressive reading of the orchestral part, as they indeed do on the succeeding works as well.

"Dark Journey" for oboe and strings forms its nucleus around musical fragments by Hans Rott, a neglected composer who lived in the later 19th century, wrote a forward looking symphony and died in an insane asylum, aged 26. It is a sort of psychological study in contrasts, of a man alternately balanced and unbalamced, a tragic figure.

"Neihardt's Nightmare" is dubbed by the composer a "Courtly Love Song for piano and orchestra." Oliver Triendl does the honors on piano. It is based on the popular Middle Ages minnisinger Neidhart von Reuntal, his peasant-oriented poetics and popular song style. The composer's nightmare is based on the potential outbreak of "ecstatic physicality." Movement two translates into sound Thomas Mann's description of young Hanno's "unrestrained orgy" of piano expression in the classic Buddenbrooks novel. Altogether the "Nightmare" forebodingly portrays the potentially destructive ethos contained in emotional musical excess. It is a work that contains some extraordinarily demonic, macabre passages.  Triendl and the orchestra attack the music with  the right amount of unhinged gusto when called upon to do so. It is a work one does not forget easily. Powerful.

Schneider proves himself to be an extraordinarily composer who can work with a literary, extra-musical narrative and bring the story to a vivid musical presence. These are memorable works and very lively performances to match.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Jo Kondo, Bonjin, Chamber Music, ensemble l'art pour l'art

Tokyo born (1947) Jo Kondo composes deliberately but intuitively, one note at a time. Like Cage's prepared piano pieces Kondo's music is, in his words, "organized somehow, but through that organization you can hear each individual note." The music has an almost ritual rhythmic regularity (even in its sometimes irregular regularity). It is a music not so much of color as of structure.

This we hear to our concentrated delight (or I do anyway) on the recent Bonjin, Chamber Music (Wergo 7342 2). Ensemble l'art pour art takes us idiomatically and artfully through nine chamber works that are hypnotic not necessarily through repetition, but through their facticity and presence, their singular being.

The music is neither tonal nor atonal, ultimately. It is pan tonal, I suppose you could say, filled with ambiguity, multi-centers or no centers in terms of key. The composer, the liner notes tell us, acts as a listener as he proceeds note-by-note, improvisatorily but conscious of his agency.

The result is a series of chamber works that have each an uncanny being, beginning with the titular "Bonjin" for female voice, alto flute and double bass, and onward to works for flute and piano, for mezzo-soprano and violin, for classical guitar, for mezzo-soprano and piano, for flute and guitar, for violin and piano, for flute and percussion, and for violin and percussion.

Each is a high modernist world unto itself, original in a self-less, self-ful consciousness-raising way.

It is an album of modernist purity, like no other.

Very recommended.