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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

John Gibson, Traces

When the world seems the opposite of what you thought it was, there still is music and the love of the new. John Gibson comes to us with his album Traces (Innova 896), a fine collection of seven electroacoustic works, covering a fascinating spectrum of sounds that make a coherency--a very intelligent and moving program.

Some are pure electroacoustics, some add or are built around live instruments. In the latter category are "Out of Hand" which is built around Michael Tunnell's trumpet and Brett Schuster's trombone. Then there is "Red Plumes" with Craig Hultgrin on cello. Finally "Blue Traces" centers on the piano of Kati Gleiser.

The musicality and fresh musical thinking of Gibson predominates in any case, no matter what the work's premises and sound design.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Houston Symphony, Hans Graf

There is little doubt. Many would agree with me that Alban Berg's Wozzeck (Naxos 8.660390-91 2-CDs) is the greatest opera of the 20th century. In spite of its pioneering modernity--or more rightly because of its supremely appropriate adoption to a harrowing dramatic theme, it has been staged over the world continuously since its premiere in 1925. The uncanny, seamless fit between the expressionist music and tragic portrayal of a social misfit makes for riveting, bone-chilling fare.

There have been a number of performances on record since the advent of the LP. The Boulez with the Paris Opera and the Karl Bohm with the Orchester des Deutschen Opernhauses Berlin and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau  stand out in my mind as the definitive, pace setting winners. But now we have a new one on the budget Naxos label with soloists and the Houston Symphony under Hans Graf.

Roman Trekel in the role of Wozzeck, Anne Schwanewilms as Marie and Marc Molomot as Captain Hauptmann are convincing both dramatically and musically. The orchestra brings us a full, well-rounded interpretation, not perhaps as edgy as Boulez but fully in tune with the score and its remarkable fitness to the drama.

There are several moments in the opera that I have found remarkable in themselves. The whistling, the out-of-tune piano in the bar-room scene and the final scene with children playing and singing in chilling contrast to the brutal murder that marks the climax of the opera. Graaf  and company underscore the whistling very well. The bar piano seems a little under recorded, as does the children's choir and dialog at the end. No matter.

This version introduces anyone unfamiliar with the essential work nicely, and its middle-level expressivity marks a decided contrast to the Bohm and the Boulez, so much so that it is worth having as another take on the music. Either way Graaf's version is a winner.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Ockeghem, Masses, Beauty Farm

We can be thankful that Flemish Renaissance master contrapuntalist Johannes Ockeghem lived and thrived (1410?-1497) and that much of his ravishing music has come down to us intact. Just how ravishing we can readily hear on the two-work album Masses (FB Limited Edition 1701743), as sung by the exceptional period vocal group Beauty Farm.

Included is the "Missa L'Homme Arme" in four parts, possibly the first such setting based on the popular song as cantus firmus, and "Missa Quinti Toni" in three parts. The six vocalists bring out the unparalleled beauty of the parts, made so attractively otherworldly via their vibratoless delivery and heightened by the excellence of the countertenor Bart Uvyn and the other vocalists in the ensemble..

This is truly remarkable music, made all the more so by the quality of the performances. Ockeghem's contrapuntal writing has a sublimity of which only a master of the highest caliber is capable.

It is hard to imagine an intersection of composer and choral group more felicitous. The hard-edged articulation of each line (made especially alive by the small group) allows us to experience the living presence of the contrapuntal totality, the virtual absence (aside from the mandatory cadences) of a single banal intervallic movement, the singularity of every part and their near miraculous juxtaposition into an enchanting whole.

Anyone who is an early music enthusiast or for that matter anyone who needs further exposure to Renaissance masterworks will be well served by this album.

Truly.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bruce Crossman, Living Colours: Pacific Sounds & Spirit

New music lives! As Edgard Varese put it, "the present day composer refuses to die!" That remains as true as ever. We find plenty of life out there, perhaps nowhere more than on Bruce Crossman's bouquet of compositions, Living Colours: Pacific Sounds & Spirit (Navona 6095).

As the title suggests Crossman allows the music of the Pacific, specifically of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino traditions, to influence his more or less high modern attention to sound color and sound space. Harrison and Partch are possible forebears without becoming templates.

Four adventuresome chamber works comprise the program, each a significant waystep in understanding Crossman's musical ways. The longest work, "Gentleness-Suddenness" for mezzo-soprano, violin, percussion and piano, has the spacious stop and go perhaps of Korean Pansori music, only rethought and reactivated as an inspiration for the new music realm.

"Where Are the Sounds of Joy?" makes thoughtful use of an even smaller ensemble--trumpet, percussion and piano--for something spaciously Asian but with an effectively communicative vocabulary of Western new music. I cannot help recall Stockhausen's "Refrain," but only again as precursor. There is a modern improv music element as well. It makes a beautiful end to a significant program.

Backtracking though, the album begins with two small ensemble works of note, "Double Resonances" for percussion and piano, and "Not Broken Bruised-Reed" for violin, percussion and piano. Both are exemplary of the Crossman approach and give us much to appreciate.

You out there who look for the new in new music, seek no further. Crossman is a real force for the present-future. The album is outstanding!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Leopold Kozeluch, Symphonies 1, Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice, Marek Stilec

From the Czech Masters in Vienna series we have a first volume of symphonies by the nearly forgotten Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818), Symphonies 1 (Naxos 8.573627). He was during his lifetime one of the more prominent Bohemian composers working in Vienna, with a considerable instrumental output.The back liner blurb alerts us to listen for a lyrical strain that prefigures young Schubert. And sure enough, one can hear that element if one listens for it, along with a Haydn-Mozart-Viennese classical panache and structure.

For this inaugural volume we hear the Sinfonias PosK 3, 5, 6, and 7. They are jaunty and pleasurable, thanks in part to the spirited performances of the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Stilec.

Kozeluch from this evidence was an inspired craftsman. These are not some kind of game-changing examples from the era, but neither are they inconsequential fluff. Anyone with a penchant for the pre-romantic classical-period symphony will find this an enchanting listen.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hindemith Complete String Quartets, Amar Quartet

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote some of the seminal chamber works of the first half of the 20th century. The Complete String Quartets (Naxos 8.503290) were as representative a slice of that as anything he did. The first five cover the major part of his European tenure, written between 1914 and 1923. Nos 6 and 7 were from his US period (1943, 1945).

All mark significant moments in his growth toward stylistic sublimity, toward an ideal of striking motival exceptionality and development, tightly conceived art expressions of his personal brand of avant neo-classical modernism.

The Amar Quartet gives us thoughtful and energetically dynamic readings of the seven quartets in a Naxos box set. There may be more brilliant interpretations of some of these works but taken as a whole the Amar versions are very faithful to the composer's vision and a real pleasure to experience.

There is a treasure trove of vintage Hindemith to be heard in this complete opus. Hindemith himself was a very accomplished violist. His presence in the acclaimed original Amar Quartet during his German period uniquely situated him to think in quartet terms. The quartet cycle that came out of this intimate working familiarity was surely one of the finest of the last century. Some 55 years after his death the quartets sound as fresh and vital as ever. The Amar version at the Naxos price makes it very attractive indeed, an essential element in your 20th century chamber collection.

Kudos and bravos!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Jeff Herriott, Stone Tapestry, Due East, Third Coast Percussion

Stone Tapestry (New Focus Recordings FCR 175), takes us on an extraordinary voyage through nine interrelated ambient sonic passages. This, the music of Jeff Herriott, comes forth in its own way, not quite like any other. Part of that has to do with the instrumentation. The duo Due East takes a leading role with Erin Lesser on flutes and Gregory Beyer on percussion. The formidable ensemble Third Coast Percussion adds considerable sound mass to the totality with David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors manning a barrage of instruments..

The totalized instrumentation these seven instrumentalists play has been chosen carefully by Herriott for a special sound world highly evocative, timbrally complex and beautifully orchestrated. It comprises alto flute, bass flute, bowls of water, contrabass flute, crotales, crystal glasses, flute, glass bowls, gongs, pipes, stones, vibraphones and wood planks.

The result is an ever-shifting ambiance with highly luminescent clusters of wood, metal, stone and glass.

Jeff Herriott knows what he is after and the ensemble sounds the corpus of instruments with standard and extended techniques. Each movement fills the aural space with its own special constellation.

It is a remarkable sonority, a fabulous program.

Highly recommended.