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Friday, July 28, 2017

Sibelius, Symphonies 1 & 6, Thomas Sondergard, BBC National Orchestra of Wales

 
For some reason, in my first decade of listening to modern classical music, a teen in a rapidly changing world, I thought I was too cool to check out Sibelius. High Modernism was king in my formative years and I was so busy catching on to it that I did not consider so much many of the less abashedly "modern" contemporaries that of course in the main I now gladly treasure. By the time I was at NYU, a professor who gave me much to  think about suggested in one of the non-curricular get togethers that I should take Sibelius seriously. He was right, and so I fell under the spell of Finland's greatest composer rapidly and never went back.

As is always the case, one can get very subtle or very different interpretations of symphonic works by opening up to performances other than the one you have first grown accustomed to. And so appropriately there is a new recording of Sibelius' Symphonies 1 & 6 (Linn Records) by Thomas Sondergard and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of this release is the majestic interpretation of Sibelius' First. A fair number of versions I have heard over time. This one gives us all the ice and passion of Sibelius-as-Sibelius. It sounds less like Tchaikovsky and his "Pathetique" so much as Sibelius and his First. Not of course that Tchaikovsky was not an important influence at that point. Influence is one thing, though, and imitation quite another. Sondergard and the BBC Orchestra make the strongest case for the original strain as I have heard. And in so doing they remind us that the First is a major work in the end, not so much a pre-emptory clearing of the symphonic throat.

The Sixth is well handled, too. If it dances and bounces its way into our listening minds a bit more than other more gravitas versions, it is no less serious a treatment. If an old Colin Davis version remains to me the benchmark for this mature Sibelius triumph, it is only by a slight degree, for Sondergard has a convincing vision of the Master's music that rings true.

So this would form a great introduction to the symphonic Sibelius if for some reason you have not gotten to him yet, and it is a worthy set of new interpretations for old friends of this music, especially the triumphant reading of the First. Listen on!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ravi Shankar, Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch, Complete Version

Anyone who has appreciated Ravi Shankar in some depth knows that he was not only one of India's premiere sitarists. He was also a talented composer who innovated within classic Indian and Western-oriented forms, calling upon large ensembles of classic Indian instruments in combination often enough with Western instruments, as well as the classic Western orchestra in a series of movie soundtracks and other projects. This was a logical outgrowth of his initial involvement with the Uday Shankar Troupe in his youth. That institution featured Indian instruments and vocalists in elaborately arranged ensembles.

Of the many recorded examples of Ravi Shankar's compositional-ensemble music, Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch was one that for some reason I missed on its first release in the early 1990's. The good news is that the complete version has now been issued-reissued (East Meets West 1017). It includes for the first time the complete musical score with some 20 additional minutes added that were not initially included in the first release. It forms Vol. 5 of East Meets West "Nine Decades" series devoted to the Master's musical life.

The theater piece was originally commissioned by the Birmingham Touring Opera Company and premiered in 1989. The theme centers around the tragic results of chronic drug abuse via the story of a talented Indian dancer and his ultimate descent into delusion and death.

As is often enough the case in Ravi's mature compositional stance, both Northern (Hindustani) and Southern (Carnatic) instruments and traditions combine freely as do in this case dance styles of both regions.

The music deftly combines instruments and vocals in a multi-movement scenario that follows the joyful moments and gradual decline into infernal realms with great artistry and beauty.

It ranks up there, in my opinion, with the Master's best compositional suites. It shows a darker side to his music (necessitated by the plot of course) and a bold contrast between spiritual heights and infernal lows like no other Shankar work.

Needless to say I strongly recommend the issue to all Shankar devotees but also anyone seeking to better understand the compositional side of modern Indian classical music.






Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rued Langgaard, Piano Works Vol. 3, Berit Johansen Tange

The music of Danish composer Rued Langaard (1893-1952) has gradually been gaining more notice here in the States. Primarily this has been taking place as some worthwhile modern recordings have become available. A series of his Piano Works is a good case in point. I am currently in possession of the Volume 3 (DaCapo 6.220631), as played with distinction by pianist Bent Johansen Tange.

Although I have not yet had the pleasure of hearing the earlier volumes, this one gives us a worthwhile selection of works, three in first recordings. Covered are a spectrum of some seven pieces written over a substantial time period between a youthful 1917 and the fullest maturity of the mid-late-'40s. There is not surprisingly a growth to be traced from a Nordic romantic-lyric stance to more radically chromatic effusions, but most always a sprinkling of tonal memorability. As the liner notes make clear, Langgaard starts with a musical vision more than a formal sequencing.

These are pieces written not so much for immediate performances (many were not in fact performed publicly until after his death) as for the sake of a personal expressive outlet. And so the music has a kind of inner deepness more than an audience pleasing demeanor. There is often enough a virtuoso component and a very personal originality. They are sometimes modernistic in tenor, yet they also have a kind of personal determination that is heedless of the prevailing trends, and that can in fact be quite endearing to hear.

Anyone who seeks the more involved expressive possibilities of the modern period solo piano literature will I believe find in this volume a good deal to like. The performances are near-spectacular and Langaard's pianistic poeticism is not quite like any other.

Listen, do.




Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Franz Liszt, Berlioz Transcriptions, Feng Bian, Piano

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the first genuinely Promethean piano virtuoso. He brought a giganticism, an orchestral presence to the solo piano which in turn was made possible by the advancement in manufacture that gave the modern grand piano a brilliance and a louder, wider dynamic range than it previously had. Liszt created a body of piano literature that suited his concert and salon needs and also did a series of piano transcriptions of celebrated orchestral works of his day, opera chestnuts, Bach organ music and what have you. The orchestral transcriptions made obvious to what might have been otherwise an audience that did not understand: the Liszt and the modern grand could reproduce in pianistic terms what some of the 19th century composers from Beethoven onwards were doing for the fully evolved concert orchestra.

Berlioz and then Wagner expanded the scope and radicalized the romantic symphony orchestra while Liszt was doing the same for the piano. It was only natural that he would embark on a series of piano transcriptions of both. In today's volume we hear his Berlioz Transcriptions (Naxos 8.573710). It is a somewhat judicious assortment of the well-known: the "Dance des Sylphes de la Damnation de Faust," and several chestnuts extracted from "Sinfonie Fantastique" (the "March au supplice" and "L'idee fixe" theme); and the somewhat lesser known: the "Ouverture des Francs-Juges."

All of it is as well configured and as well played by pianist Feng Bian as one might hope.

This one is serious and also lots of fun! Berlioz is transformed and much good it does him.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Frederick Delius, Arnold Bax, Choral Music, The Carice Singers, George Parris

An album collection of Choral Music (Naxos 8.573695) by pre-modernist, sometimes quasi-impressionist English composers Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and Arnold Bax (1883-1953) would first off demand an excellent choral group to make it all shine. We most happily get this with the Carice Singers under George Parris. They are angelic, well balanced and have sopranos that launch the high notes with bell-like clarity and beauty.

They handle the program with impeccable sonority and musicality, bringing out the spirit and letter of the music. There are subtle folk elements buried within these pieces, and often enough a kind of pastoral modern archaicism that only adds to the charm. Both Delius and Bax show a flair for s-a-t-b possibilities.  Most of the music is sung a cappella. The sole exception is Bax's "I Sing of a Maiden that is Makeless," which includes well conceived support from harp, cello and double bass.

There are 11 short Delius works, all atmospheric and enchanting. The earliest works are unabashedly romantic but all benefit from a lyric originality and a sure sense of effective part writing.

Bax is no less appealing with three fairly long songs and two lengthy works in his "Five Greek Folksongs" (1942) and "Mater Ora Filium" (1921).

Perhaps Bax has a slight edge in his harmonic sophistication. Both however show a consummate mastery of the choral idiom and a sort of natural feel for rustic settings and their effective tone-painted realizations.

This one is sheer pleasure. Anyone who likes the Anglo school and/or loves some well sung early contemporary fare will find it all very worthwhile. Recommended!
 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Yassen Vodenitcharov, Blue Echo

Yassan Vodenitcharov, Bulgarian born modernist composer of worth, brings to us some six illuminating examples of his music on Blue Echo (Gega New 395). His current association with IRCAM in Paris all but guarantees that he espouses some form of High Modernism, and he does. What he is not however is someone out of the "bleep and bloop" serial and post-serial style of pointillistic neo-hockett. There are multiple lines to be heard, understandably, but they can be homophonic or in multiple parallels. One of course does not often find a neo-Webernian approach carrying the day in contemporary music these days, and so too Vodenitcharov goes into the fray with his own sense of sound clusters, color blocks and explorations of personal, well mapped terrains.

The works themselves employ a quite varied instrumentation. "The Ribbon of Mobius" features two pianists and two percussionists, "Blue Echo (Concerto for Trumpet and String Orchestra)" is indeed for that, "Bacchus and Ariadne" utilizes bassoon and celeste, "Trajectories of Silence" has the unusual quartet instrumentation of two mandolins, mandola and guitar, "Lamento" is for orchestra with voice, and "Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra" is self-explanatory.

I would not venture to suggest that this music has some of the dynamic thrust of the new improvisation style currently practiced by some Americans, Europeans and Japanese, mostly because there may be a convergence that is coincidental or not. Nonetheless there are expressive similarities, though Vodenitcharov's examples here are more overtly planned and architecturally framed works with some of the high modern rigor of methods holding sway often enough, if my ears are a good judge.

Each work is unto itself and yet the overall impression is consistent and rewarding. I will not run down my impression of each here. Listening is key of course. Suffice to say that Vodenicharov comes to us in his own special way.

Any following modernist new music trends would be well served by this volume. It is something to immerse oneself in, to study, to enjoy and appreciate with a little effort.

Another one I do recommend as important listening.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Franz Schmidt, Symphony No. 2, Richard Strauss, Dreaming By the Fireside, Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) and his Symphony No. 2 (Sony Classic 88985355522) have been victims of vicious critical attacks since Schmidt wrote the work in 1913. Yet it (the symphony) tends to be subject to some attention via performances and recordings to this day. Perhaps not nearly enough?

Wikipedia calls the score reminiscent of Strauss and Reger with some of the heroic largess of Bruckner, and my ears hear that but to the point more of an originality in the late-romantic realm in which Schmidt worked.

The new recording I have been hearing, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, does much to make a case for its heroic complexities. This is a late-romantic Austro-Hungarian work that when well played as it is on the new recording comes very much into being with lyric tenderness and power (and I hear as much Mahler's influence as the others but Schmidt is here very much Schmidt). This has been described as a kind of pastoral symphony. I can hear that.

An added bonus is Richard Strauss's short orchestral interlude from his not often performed opera Intermezzo, "Dreaming By the Fireside." It is a worthwhile tidbit and serves to remind us how Schmidt is another thing apart from Strauss. If nothing else you hear a much different harmonic palette, even if both have a large and lush orchestral carpeting in common. The variational aspect of the inner movement of Schmidt's Second is of a very different nature than the tone-poem sequentiality of Strauss.

So what we have s a very stimulating and rewarding program. The care with which Schmidt is elaborated marks this as an extraordinarily fine version, a very best, and gloriously sound staged in ways we scarcely hope could be bettered. Kudos!