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Thursday, May 25, 2017

William Hellermann, Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December, Robert Dick

The minimal can turn out to be far from that; it can be an external cloak for the micro-maximal. That is very true of William Hellermann's soliloquy Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December (New World 80789-2). It has a never-ending, infinitely expansive way about it. A single work lasting some 50 minutes it proceeds with the premise that a small number of fundamental tones on Robert Dick's flute can be subjected to sound color variations via circular breathing, breath control, articulation, etc.

What unfolds is an opening into the fabric of aural space. Fundamental root tones, harmonic overtones and differing shades of tonal color inherent within the audio production of sounding--all get ample time for us to contemplate. The simple has within it the infinitely complex. That comes forward into our consciousness as Dick articulates Hellermann.

The liners describe the revolutionary act of the premiere performance, by Robert Dick at the American Center in Paris, 1979. The recent recording tells the rest. It is a music you feel, beyond its verbal description, which can only tell you what is, maybe, more so than what it feels like to hear it.

I would try and tell you more, of that inner world of feeling the hearing, But it is better that you simply hear it for yourself, repeatedly, without expectations. That will  be decisive for you.

I recommend you engage with this one. It might change you!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lei Liang, Luminous

Some high modernist chamber excellence can be had on Chinese-American composer Lei Liang's Luminous (New World 80784-2). Five compositions for varied instrumentation fill the program. The liner notes no doubt say it all definitively so that I probably come to this with less insight.

The string quartet "Vergo Quartet" (2013) is an example of what Liang is about. There are Mongolian aspects but they are so well integrated into the whole that you may not notice. Instead this is very lively music that manages to be both tonal and modernistically three-dimensional.

"Trans" (2013) for solo percussionist (Steven Schick) has a spacious, sprawling quality. A dramatic series of waxing and waning burst of notes contrasts with suspended cymbal rolls. A sprightly, more densely rhythmic kind of dance follows.

The solo piano work "The moon is following us" (2015) has a Cagean Eastern quality and goes him one further.

"Inkscape" (2014) for Third Coast Percussion and pianist Michael Lewenthal is spacious like "Trans" but ever more structurally profound.

Then finally we have bass wonder Mark Dresser team up with the chamber ensemble Palimpsest for a lengthy modern narrative on "Luminous" (2014). Mark is called upon to show the wide range of sounds a master like himself can produce. The chamber ensemble parallels his beautiful playing with excellent contrapuntal dialectics.

I feel I have not done justice to the rewarding complexities of Lei Liang's music. The album has many riches that careful listening will uncover. I recommend you listen!

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.


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.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Intersections, Cross-Cultural Collaborations in Sound

The resumption of relations between the US and Cuba has begun to give rise to fruitful collaborative musical results. One of them, a very good one, is on the docket today: Intersections: Cross-Cultural Collaborations in Sound (Ansonica AR0002). The premise is simple. Bring a number of US New Music compositions into Cuba and engage some of the best local performance groups and individuals in realizing the works.

Both the music and its interpretation give us an exciting program, very well performed.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba under conductor Enrique Perez Mesa brings to us a measured, beautiful reading of "Awakening for Piano and Orchestra" with composer Jeffrey Jacob at the piano. It is an atmospherically charged modern lyricism at work--mildly melancholy and ambiently stunning.

From there, a cornucopia of chamber works. Heidi Jacob signs in with "Untouched By Morning and Untouched By Noon." Brian Church as baritone leads the way with a mix of Cuban and US musicians on bass clarinet, trumpet, and piano. It is some decidedly memorable expressive modernity at play. Performances are just right.

The realm of avant jazz-new music intersections comes forward on Steven Block's "Putting it Together." The all-Cuban chamber combo distinguishes itself wonderfully well. It reminds us that there is a vibrant music scene in Cuba today, with more depth than we might have anticipated. Kudos to Abiel Guerra on drums, Prieto on alto sax, Carlos Guerra on tenor and soprano sax, plus Lopez and Benitez on double basses, Mesa conducting.

Mesa also conducts Cervetti's "And the Huddled Masses," for clarinet and string quartet. It is evocative and filled with typical Cervetti vibrancy.

Finally, Ensemble Vocal Luna steps forward under the direction of Sandra Santos Gonzalez for the twin works of Christina Rusnak, "Dearly Beloved" and "Dearly Departed." It is haunting music. Vocal Luna is exceptional. And so ends a most worthy program.

The complex logistics of the US-Cuba nexus and this sort of project have been adroitly handled, and music-makers have triumphed, The works are vital, performances excellent. I look forward to more! Do not miss this one, you who follow the new music.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Carl Czerny, Organ Music, Iain Quinn

One of the most prolific composers of his era, Carl Czerny (1791-1857) is best remembered today as the author of seminal piano technique exercises. Anyone trained in classical piano has encountered them. Yet there is remains a great deal of music of his that has hung in a cloud of obscurity since his death. It certainly bears our consideration.

The man who was a student of Beethoven and a teacher of Liszt composed a bit of Organ Music (Naxos 8.573425) and we get to hear some of it, well performed by Iain Quinn, on a new Naxos release. Not surprisingly his 1838 "Prelude and Fugue in A minor, Op. 607" has a definite Bach inspiration. It is well constructed and worthwhile.

The remaining pieces were composed in 1841 for the English marketplace, at least partially. We get 32 varied miniatures in all, some contrapuntally oriented, others through composed. They comprise the bulk of this CD. "Twenty Short Voluntaries for Organ with Obbligado Pedal, Op. 698" and "Twelve Introductory or Intermediate Voluntaries, Op. 627" clock in at well more than an hour of listening time. Some have triumphant grandeur, others are more in the meditative realm. All show the craftsmanship, some the touch of inspiration, of a sure hand.

Listen to how he interweaves the theme from "God Bless the Queen" into his music for example. It is but an instance of his accomplished, inventive ways. A close listen reveals a good deal more to appreciate.

For the organ aficionado and/or those seeking to know more of the compositional side of Czerny this is an offering that will keep your ears busy and provide much of substance.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Stephen Hartke, The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon

There are musical composition personalities out there today who boldly go their own way, showing us a modern return to tonality with a very personal passage through the musical thickets of contemporary possibilities. Such a one is Stephen Hartke (b. 1952), who brings his originality very much to bear on the recent album The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon (BMOP Sound 1052). It is another cornerstone in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project led by Gil Rose.

From the start of the album and the title work we hear an American orchestral master in his own right. "The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon" (1995) is a descriptive excuse for a vibrant character piece. Like Honegger's "Pacific 231" it delves fully into a journey (here in a hot air balloon) while using some striking orchestral sonarities that in the end are unforgettable. The opening chords utilize brass and strings and paint a setting with brilliance. It goes on from there in very memorable fashion.

"Alvorada: Three Madrigals for String Orchestra" (1983) has a very different aural fingerprint, an old-in-the-new modern panorama of searching string parts that manage to evoke old music yet have a beautifully affective newness about them.

The four movement "Brandenburg Autumn" (2006) brings yet another character study vividly to life with deceptive ease. The eloquent musical discourse seems effortless but must have entailed a good deal of craftwork. Hartke's mastery of orchestration allows him to unravel complex strands of tone and timbre, with each movement capturing a distinct mood and imagery, once again calling upon early music allusions, here Renaissance to Baroque, to paint lost time and seasons with poetic grace and originality.

"Muse of the Missouri" (2012) changes the pace for an evocative orchestral essay with a strong flavor of Americana but squarely unfolding with Hartke's pointed quasi-impressionistic, then rhythmically strong focus on melodic clarity and musico-logic poeticism. Ives' "Central Park in the Dark" may be a significant precursor in the mysterioso opening and closing passages, yet Hartke carves out his very own vistas. It is an ear opener!

Hartke in the liners underscores the importance of melody to his style. You can hear that in all four works as a return to motival essences. Nonetheless the sum total of 20th century developments somehow figure in the way he rethinks what it means to be modern today. That he goes beyond to find his own expression is clear and enormously attractive.

These four works stand out as very Hartkean ways to create distinction out of the potential maelstrom and chaos of contemporary possibilities. Ascent of the Equestrian unapologetically carves out a very immediate style that is easy to appreciate yet bears close scrutiny.

A real stand-out! Hartke must be heard.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fernando Benadon, Delight/Delirium

Fernando Benadon on Delight/Delirium (New Focus Recordings 179) constructs robust chamber works that are firmly in the new music camp but also have jazz/improvisational elements. Each piece is intricately and satisfyingly built out of finely conceived elements.

The largest ensemble at play occurs on "Cosmicomics" (2013) a brightly shimmering work performed by the Illinois Modern Ensemble as conducted by Stephen Andrew Taylor. As of many works here it is of literary inspiration, depicting two scenes from Calvino's tale of the same name. It has like the other works in this anthology an original feel derived from careful, effective scoring, here for the amassed winds and strings. There are modern, tonally advanced intersections, clusters and expressively wrought foreground elements that altogether create a multidimensional matrix.

The works for smaller groups have a special presence as well whether it is a matter of the early-jazz/new music inflected "Bugi Wugi" (2007) for solo piano or the other small-scale works I am about to describe. "Corxes" (2013) represents a whirl in a car through Barcelona on an early spring afternoon. A feeling of time and space in motion is heightened by rhythmically charged passages for sax, vibes, harp and piano.

"Delight/Delirium" (2016) again makes use of a literary theme, this time from Neil Gaimon's Sandman series, to create a lively matrix of movement for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, harp and piano.

"Rhythmensional" (2015) builds around a jazz-rock drum solo recorded as an improvisation by Dafnis Preito. Benadon takes that initial track and scores very dynamic parts for bass clarinet, viola, vibes and piano. A music of very great rhythmic vitality results, a one-of-a-kind intersection led by the complex drumming and turned into a marvelously intentional new music with perhaps only Frank Zappa as forbearer of this stylistic complex.

It is a fitting conclusion for what is an extraordinarily captivating program. Benadon knows what he is after and realizes it in five movingly fresh works. It is one of the best sort of collisions of jazz-rock influence and new chamber music I have heard in the past decade.

And so I do not hesitate to recommend this to you without reservation.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Louis Spohr, Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Alfred Walter

For the last time we encounter the symphonies of Louis Spohr (1784-1859) with the final volume of the complete cycle as nicely performed by Alfred Walter and the Slovak State Philharmonic. Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (Naxos 8.555527) close the book, complete the circle, and simultaneously reaffirm to overall quality of the music for our ears.

The Symphony No. 7 is subtitled "The Earthly and Divine in Human Life." It is daring work for its time, like the Fourth before an innovation in form shaped by programmatic content. Here the "divine" is represented by a small orchestra, the "earthly" by a large one.. The two groups interact in three-movements--"The World of Childhood," "The Age of Passion" and the "Final Triumph of the Heavenly." The music abandons the expectations of the typical symphonic sequence and form for a more freely expressive approach depicting the dynamic of the two forces in our lives. It unveils long thematic unfoldings somewhat akin to Schubert in the last symphonies, but it follows Spohr's post-Beethoven trajectory as we have come to hear it in the other symphonies.

No. 8 has more of the traditional four movement symphony going for it. But for that matter there is nothing lightweight about it. It has the dramatic dynamic of the Spohr symphonic way and it absorbs and envelopes the listener in all the ways Spohr can do.

So this is a very positive last volume in an unexpected treasure trove of symphonic music. This one is a good place to start. And if you like this one, you'll no doubt respond to the others like I did. Spohr's time may be now. The collection is marvelous!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Passage, Contemporary Works for Orchestra, Cervetti, Morris, Wishart, Crozier

We are in the midst of a music resurgence, though the economy of music making may have dropped to its lowest ebb in centuries. Navona and the Parma Group in general have acted heroically in the years past to make available many works in new music, often enough by composers who might otherwise be less familiar to us. Another worthwhile offering can be had on the anthology Passage, Contemporary Works for Orchestra (Navona NV6094).

There are four composers and four corresponding works represented on the album. Each as the title suggests brings you to a different place, makes a transition from one state to another, and explores a worthwhile terrain along the way.

Sergio Cervetti and his "Concerto for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani" starts off the program with stirring trumpet lines that burst forth and when conjoined with the orchestral-timpani lines convey a clarion, soul stirring call to action.

Craig Madden Morris follows with "A Child's Day," evoking in three movements a great contrast from the opening work. "Morning Smiles," "Playtime," and "Sweet Dreams" each bring us vivid orchestral tapestries that show a child's tender ability to experience all as if anew in every day. This is charming music, immediately communicative but not in any simplistic manner. It nearly enters sentimental turf but stops just short, happily.

Next up is Betty R. Wishart and her "Concertante No. 1: Journey Into the Unknown" It is music of ponderous mystery, bounding across our listening space with great grace yet equal significance.

Daniel Crozier's "Ballade: A Tale After the Brothers Grimm" has a narrative quality no doubt meant to be descriptive, stating in abstract musical terms what at some point was a cluster of word meanings. Crozier's eloquent musical discourse unveils a complex mood of shifting orchestral colors and multi-line unfoldings.

So that is my run-down of the music. It takes you as promised on a journey that is both weighty and pleasurable, giving you four works well played and equally well composed.

An excellent listen!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Cedric Tiberghien, Mikrokosmos 5, etc.

Bela Bartok's solo piano works at their best open up his folk and modern sensibilities in no uncertain terms. Pianist Cedric Tiberghien has embarked on a series of recordings that look at such highlights along with some piano centered chamber gems. The recent volume, which like the others is simply entitled Bartok (Hyperion CDA68133), tackles some of the most memorable and masterful solo works with a zeal and heightened performativity virtually unmatched in the recorded versions I have heard.

Tiberghien choses well for his selections on the program."Romanian Folk Dances," "Fourteen Bagatelles," "Allegro barbaro," "Eight Improvisations on Hungarian peasant songs," and "Mikrokosmos" Book Five are prime Bartokian masterworks that bring out his pioneering folk music research and its adaptation to a modernist perspective along with some of his his more abstracted works.

Tiberghien approaches them all with a highly charged pianistic elan. There is a maximum of the interpretive ethos at play, extreme rubato, a highly creative articulative imagination, all giving us the very familiar, often enough in radically reconceived ways. Those who know most or all of these works likely will feel as if they are hearing the music anew.

We get a very invigorated feeling as we listen. Tiberghien is a genuine phenomena among piano interpreters of the modern repertoire. The recording may startle you if you know the works well. It provides anyone with good ears a pianistic triumph.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Balz Trumpy, Oracula Sibyllae, El Cimarron Ensemble

Judging from the liner notes to Balz Trumpy's Oracula Sibyllae (Wergo 7335-2), Trumpy is a complex product of two main factors: the geographic panorama of the Swiss Canton Glarus, a flat space surrounded on three sides by mountains, and the attraction for him of Ancient Greek gods and myths.

Music being the abstract art that it is, you might listen to Oracula Sibyllae a number of times without the slightest inclination to hear that in the music, especially if you did not read the liners right away. It matters little. The music speaks to us nonetheless with an eloquence far beyond the verbal.

We are firmly in chamber territory on the five compositions featured here. "Ballade" for solo acoustic guitar, "Cinque Pezzi" for marimba, "Aeolian Song" for flute, "Vier Duette" for marimba and guitar, and "Oraculae Sybillae" for soprano, baritone, flute and percussion--all establish Trumpy as a composer who carefully works within a modern vocabulary to establish intricate realities that bring forward the idiomatic characteristics of each instrument and voice.

Trumpy generally spins out a horizontally oriented, originally distinctive series of lines, mainly fearless in their bold modernist harmonic implications.

Trumpy has a voice. Of that there is no doubt. The program on this disk demands concentrated listening. It rewards the effort with some deep explorations brimming over with an intense brightness. Hear this now if you seek something different in the new music realm.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Jennifer Higdon, All Things Majestic, Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero

There are more and more women composers out there in present times, which of course is a healthy trend. One of the best and most well known is Jennifer Higdon. We have a recent disk of some orchestral works on All Things Majestic (Naxos 8.559823) which features Vladimir Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony with convincing performances.

There are three works in all, the title work "All Things Majestic" (2011), plus world premier recordings of the "Viola Concerto" (2014) and the "Oboe Concerto" (2005). I have listened to the disk my requisite five times and while the music is well put-together, I honestly have not been left with a firm impression. You probably can blame that on a very bad week and so a distracted listener, this reviewer.

As I write this the fifth playing is going on simultaneously, which is standard operating procedure for me. The "Viola Concerto" is very well written in a contemporary modern way. The "Oboe Concerto" is especially attractive for the way the oboe interacts with the orchestral matrix, differing in time as the work progresses.

The title work is perhaps the centerpiece for all of this. It is a most noble work, the horns projecting a regal beauty and hushed strings showing a quieter, more peaceful view, for example. It is a masterful orchestral essay  Higdon sounds modern yet she is not afraid to be unabashedly lyrical in diatonic expansiveness.

In the end my last listen did help put the music together. That I am left slightly adrift can no doubt be ascribed to the lack of peace in my home the past few weeks. I can find no fault with the music or the performances. So I cannot say this is not a worthy release. Higdon needs to be heard and here is a good opportunity for that.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Jory Vinikour, J.S. Bach, Partitas BWV 825-830

The Partitas of J.S. Bach constitute a set of consummate masterpieces, one of the highpoints of Bach's keyboard output, sounding wonderful on the harpsichord but also equally well on the modern pianoforte, with some excellent performances on the latter that came out long ago and are now perhaps not so available, notably by Glenn Gould and Joerg Demus.

It is music that everyone should have, in my opinion one of those desert island essentials. If I were dying and still aware of my surroundings, I might ask someone to put it on. Since at the moment I am very much NOT in that category this morning, I can sit down and write about a recent three-CD set of the works, played quite ably and spiritedly by Jory Vinikour on the harpsichord (Sono Luminus 92209).

This is a true-to-period baroque rendition, as one might expect, with ornamentation where you might expect it and the full flourish of the harpsichord on display.

It is a set to relish, the uncanny Bach music realized in full modern sound. More you cannot ask, although a good pianoforte version gives you another kind of hearing. In the meanwhile, purchase this with confidence.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Michael Byron, The Celebration

Post-modern minimalism can go a number of ways these days. It seems to me that at times works can be guilty of form-formulaics at the expense of  content. When that is the case, I generally find myself to be an unsatisfied participant in the listening sojourn. The building-blocks of content must be of musical interest or the whole edifice founders. Some out there either cannot or will not fashion suitable foundations.  Pardon the mixed metaphors, but they leave us with a sometimes elaborate meal concocted out of unflavorful, mundane, collectively unpalatable ingredients. We leave the table in haste, even in some distress, searching for a bromide.

This sometimes becomes all the more problematic when the work incorporates texts. The way of Einstein on the Beach worked well because of the abstraction of the textual matter and the flow of lines, but it may not necessarily serve as an ideal paradigm. Sometimes the paradigm can be applied in ways that are disastrous. Different Trains by Reich is a very successful alternate paradigm involving speech inflections but again this probably should not be indiscriminately applied to other textual and tonal material unthinkingly.

The problems I speak of are decidedly inapplicable with Michael Byron and his The Celebration (New World 8077872). It is a long and involved work for baritone and piano quintet. Thomas Buckner handles the sung-spoken part with the highly musical ways he is known for. The FLUX Quartet and Joseph Kubera on piano realize the instrumental parts with a steadiness and motility that brings out the beautifully hypnotic qualities of the score. I've reviewed a number of Byron's works here before (see search box) and in every case I am left with a smile and a dream-like state. He is a force for a sort of pastoral presentness that seems always to reach me and do good things to my mood.

Primary to the current project is the setting of Anne Tardos' poetry, introspective, probing, existential in a sort of down-to-earth practicity, if you will pardon the term, a poetic description of life as she images the experience. There are two zones of musicality that maintain themselves throughout. The quintet explores a radical tonality of shifting pentatonic and diatonic flow centers, with repetition and variations of the primal tones overlapping at contrasting velocities, the piano cascading with variable attack points like the contrastingly different speeds of multiple drips from the eaves of an old barn during a rain shower. The strings create a slower unfolding in a more legato manner. The patterns and pitch center are sectionalized, so that periodically they abruptly or somewhat more smoothly change the frame every so often. Byron does this so well we quickly surrender to the moment and flow along with him.

The vocal part floats atop the wash of natural-like processual sounds, alternately reciting and singing the poetic texts, a largo-esque melodic flow changing key according to the modulations of the quintet. The text unwinds in real time, perhaps wisely avoiding repetitions that could potentially end in the gibberish of the "cow cow cow jumped jumped over the moon moon moon" sort.

We readily are carried along with the musical current in a naturalistic way, somehow experiencing the experience as a microcosm of poetic life itself. The work immediately establishes itself and after a few listens stays with you as something rather profound and distinct.

It is cosmically lyrical music, one-of-a-kind, with a beauty that lingers on in its impression even after there is silence.

The Celebration makes its way into your deep memory-experience recesses and attaches itself to your own flow of being. That is a remarkable thing.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dutilleux, Symphony No. 2 "Le Double," Orchestre National de Lille, Darrell Ang

If I could come up with only one word for Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and his music, it might be lasting. Here in the present we experience the orchestral works as entirely modern, on the edge of such a world, speaking to us as a voice that is original, unexpectedly familiar yet strongly independant, by a consummate master of the orchestra with as much fertility of idea as brilliance of execution.

A good place to start, or to continue, depending who you are, is the recent Orchestra National de Lille/Darrell Ang recording of  Symphony No. 2 "Le Double" (Naxos 8.573596).

The Second, written 1955-59, is a prescient blend of thick yet relatively translucent impasto--multi-rhythmic voicings and jazz-like punctuations.

On the disk are two additional works. The "Timbres, espace, mouvement" from 1976-78 as revised in 1991 is a remarkably  mysterious evocation of Van Gogh's Starry Night, a bracing panorama of sound showing us the Dutilleux command and poetic disposition of parts. It does for sound what van Gogh did for paint, only perhaps feeling in its unfolding more like today than van Gogh's yesterday, timeless yet fixed in Dutilleux's own later-day idiom. The composer describes it as "a longing for an infinity of nature." It sounds like that.

The final work in the program consists of the ever unfolding series of ten episodic moments in time, the "Mystere de l'instant" of 1989. A "play of mirrors and contrasting colors" runs past our hearing beings in ways somehow both personal and modernistically universal.

The coupling of the three works with the readily rewarding interpretations of Darrell Ang and the Orchestre National de Lille decidedly makes this a most attractive offering. There may be other versions of the Second that might have a slight edge on this one, but the three-work package and the Naxos price bring this to us as a valuable and energizing choice. If you have the Second, there are the other two works as well and more the better for it. If you don't know any of these works and want to explore Dutilleux's brilliance with an optimum seating in the hall of your music system, here you go!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Josquin du pres, Josquin Masses, Di dadi, Une mousse de Biscaye, the Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips

The irreplaceable sublimity of Josquin du pres (c. 1440-1521) in the polyphonic Mass setting is something one must live with to truly appreciate. It cannot be easily or adequately described by words. In the end it is the sensuous experience of the sequence of parts and their movement together that fills the heart and mind of the hearer and leaves an unforgettable mark on her/him, provided one listens sympathetically. There is a sense of inevitability when one hears the best of them. Josquin had an extraordinary ability to make his polyphony seem like an ideal of possibilities.

So in the hands of The Tallis Scholars, a talented and angelic vocal ensemble who exemplify the best practices in early music performance today, we hear two Josquin Masses: Di dadi, Une mousse de Biscaye (Gimell CDGIM 048).

"Di dadi" is remarkable in that Josquin's creative intent was inspired by the throwing of dice. Beyond that point of extreme interest these two masses are at the highest levels of craft and art.

The performances are very moving. The music sublime. Nothing more need be said.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Crossing, International Contemporary Ensemble, Donald Nally, Seven Responses

Donald Nally, the choral ensemble the Crossing and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) present seven contemporary modern works responding to Buxtehude's seven cantatas from the oratorio Membra Jesu nostri patientis santissima. Seven Responses (Innova 912 2-CDs) is the result. It comprises a collection of seven beautifully wrought works that combine the-old-and-the-new, the impressions of the baroque labyrinth of Buxtehudian polyphony combined with an adventurist new music world.

The composers are Caroline Shaw, Hans Thomalla, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, David T. Little, Santa Ratniece and Lewis Spratlan. Each expolores a sonic universe that combines the vocal nuances of the Crossing and the instrumental evocations of ICE in fascinating ways.

There is no question as you listen as to where the stylistic contemporaneousness resides: it is decidedly not a serialist or atonal realm of the last century, though there are at times bold modernisms to be heard. It is a tonal, sound-color oriented development that embraces the ancient and the modern in a newfound synthesis that appeals while it dishes out a wealth of musical nutrients.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Egidio Romualdo Duni, Les Deux Chasseurs et la Laitiere, Accademia dell'Arcadia, Roberto Balconi

Today's recording serves to remind us once again that the annals of baroque and classical composers are filled with now unfamiliar names that history has partially erased from our collective memories, yet who may prove substantially worthwhile when we hear one or more of their works. Take today's example, that of Egidio Romualdo Duni (1708-1775). Les Deux Chasseurs et la Laitiere (Brilliant 95422) is something very attractive, a one-act comedy from 1763 that managed to garner a lasting and enthusiastic audience response in the opera world at the time, but now is almost completely unknown.

The late baroque, nearly classical jauntiness of the work lives again thanks to the very game performances here by some distinguished soloists and the Accademia dell'Arcadia under Roberto Balconi.

The arias are bright and hard-lined in their immediacy. The orchestral interludes sparkle happily.

I am beguiled by the music and performances. Duni knows exactly what he is going here, and he is near-perfect in his execution. By definition, this is lighter than air. That makes for a delightful diversion. You understand how audiences found this music enchanting. With a little effort we can recapture that experience here in 2017, just by listening. There is a ravishing airiness that is as likable as a meringue made well. And no possibility of emotional indigestion!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Paul Reale, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2, Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands

The realm of solo piano music has been especially fruitful in the modern era. The movement from Debussy, Ravel and Satie to the present is marked by many brilliant signposts. An unexpected find is in the music of Paul Reale (b. 1943), as heard in the recording I was fortunate to receive, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2: Paul Reale Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands (MSR Classics 1612). This is more-or-less neo-classic modernism, with perhaps the presence of Stravinsky and Hindemith as precursors, but reshaped and reinvented with a pronounced musical imagination.

What we have entails a continuation of Volume 1, the solo piano music of Reale that came out some time ago (and I have not heard). There are eight works in all on Volume 2, world premiere recordings of some choice and articulate pianism for four hands-one piano, two pianos and one short number for two pianos eight hands.

A blow-by-blow description of the music would differentiate what for me comes across as a unified stylistic whole. It is something best experienced not a la carte but as a full, exemplary, consecutively construed feast of neo-classic cuisine, so to speak.

I cannot find any fault in the performances and in the end Paul Reale brings us a convincing group of compositions that provide substantial fare and impress in their ultimate musicality. Hear this one if you treasure the modern pianoforte and want something new.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Versus, Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, Irena Portenko, Volodymyr Sirenko, Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra

My old composition professor reacted to my expression of admiration for Prokofiev with the thought that he was compromisingly derivative of Stravinsky. We agreed to disagree. To this day I hear of course the influence, but the differences are like Beethoven to Schubert. Sure, there is a debt but there is growth and distance that marks each as a creative light as much tabula rasa as akin in a line of succession. And the music "in the air" of early 20th century Russia, or more precisely the zeitgeist of the turbulent unfolding of history of the times helps explain the expressionist affinities between the two composers as much or more than some putative sort of one-way transmission of inspiration. If you do not agree maybe you have not spent enough time with the Prokofiev opus. No matter.

Today's CD reminds us of that and of another debt Prokofiev held in the early Russian modernist flowering. It is a recording of the remarkable pianist Irena Portenko and the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra under Volodymyr Sirenko in Versus, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (BGR 417). This underscores another debt and another tabula rasa response--here, between the clangorous paradigm of the Russian romantic piano concerto as created by Tchaikovsky versus a wholly modernist clangorous brilliance from Prokofiev. Each work is a masterpiece of its kind. 50 years separate the two. They could not be more different in their use of a melodic-harmonic idiom that defines their trajectory, and yet there is something very Russian about both in their pronounced lyrical effusion.

But for a moment we should think about the Stravinsky-Prokofiev nexus and differentiation. The year 1913 marks the debut of Stravinsky's game changing "Rite of Spring." It also is the very same year that Prokofiev completed the "Piano Concerto No. 2." A 1920 fire in Prokofiev's apartment destroyed the orchestra parts, but happily his mother had retained a copy of the piano score. Prokofiev set about reconstructing the piece in 1923, and that version is the one we still hear. It makes no difference in the end but the final version most definitely has the affinity of the dissonance and some of the savagery of "The Rite of Spring." Only of course it is a masterfully moving example of Prokofiev at his original best. Do we care in the end how the version we hear is in a parallel realm to the "Rites?" Sure, but we cannot find anything here that shows any kind of copying or mimicry. The work is pure Prokofiev, one of his early triumphs, a work that stands on its own as tragic, passionate, bittersweet, prototypically brilliant in the relation of the piano part to the orchestral response.

And I am happy to say that this version is graced by the absolute fire and tenderness of Irena Portenko's performance, something that makes the music breathe and live for us as well as it ever has. That too is the case with conductor Sirenko's ability to get all the expressive saudade out of the Ukrainian National Orchestra that we could wish for. It is a remarkable performance, probably the best I have heard!

The Tchaikovsky is extraordinarily well done, too. It is instructive to hear both concertos back-to-back in this program. I will leave it to you as to the insights one may glean from the comparison.

Suffice to say that Portenko is an interpretive giant, the orchestra tuned to each work with articulate, heightened enthusiasm, and in the end you (if you are like me) are very, very glad of it.

No self-respecting modernist should omit a close interaction with the Prokofiev. Of course the Tchaikovsky is essential fare for the Russophile. And the performances are marvelous!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hanns Eisler, Hangmen Also Die, the 400 Million, The Grapes of Wrath, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Kalitzke

If we here in the States do not know the music of Hanns Eisler (1896-1962) well, it has mostly to do with his political leanings to the left and the trouble that got him into during the McCarthy era. He had embarked on a promising film score career here in the US when he ran afoul of the apparatus that sought to expose leftist artists in the media. He was deported and his music here was blacklisted more or less completely. That was a loss to us.

It is tragic, for his music bears the stamp of a modern original. Thankfully, recordings of his works are far more plentiful than they once were. A fine example is this recent release, of a number of soundtracks from his American period: Hangmen Also Die, The 400 Million and The Grapes of Wrath (Capriccio 5289).  These soundtracks cover the years 1938-43 and complement the box set of earlier works I have reviewed on these pages (see index search box above). Also included on this CD are the "Kleine Symphonie" of 1932 and the very brief "Horfleissubung" from 1931.

The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Johannes Kalitzer do the honors for these works and their dedication gives us what sound to be very fitting performances, spirited and detailed.

The pronounced modernist edge to the music recorded here reminds us that, after all, Eisler was a pupil of Schoenberg and even when composing film scores there can be heard an unwavering contemporary slant. He presents a wealth of thematic elements that attract and are situated within masterful developmental and orchestrational poetics.

The pronounced trainwreck of my life right now means that I have had a little trouble devoting the absolute attention that this music demands and deserves. Nevertheless I can vouch for its excellence. I need to come back to it all again in the near future. Still,  I do not hesitate to recommend this album to you as a very worthy presentation of substantial music from a sadly neglected period of his career. Do hear this!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Spohr, Symphony No. 4, Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Walter

The complete Spohr (1784-1859) symphonies as recorded by the Budapest Symphony with Alfred Walter conducting turns out to be a fine thing, a revelation, the symphonic life's work of a composer that has seen neglect and in the very least is worth reviving. He reflects a world where Beethoven's star shines brightly and he does it his own way.

The volume at hand covers Symphony No. 4 (Naxos 8.555398) . Spohr completed the symphony in 1832, a time of political upheaval at the court in Kassel, Germany. A new prince had assumed rule, and the money available for music was in jeopardy. Spohr set out to write a work based on Carl Pfeiffer's poem The Consecration of Sound. He ultimately decided to make it a programmatic symphony that followed closely the text. So one passage represented, for example, a gentle breeze and bird song before a storm erupts.

One need not pay strict attention to the program to appreciate the music. It is ambitious Spohr and it sounds out with a satisfying trajectory, reaffirming that Spohr was one of the great symphonists of his era. Audiences in Germany and England reacted enthusiastically. Critics distrusted the programmatic idea and had their reservations. Hearing it now we find a good deal to like, or I do at least. After all, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony stuck to a programmatic approach, too. And neither work suffers as a result!

Accompanying the symphony are two short Overtures, to Faust and Jessonda, respectively. They are welcome additions.

Now I must admit I did not have any idea what the complete Spohr symphonies would be like before I played the first volume I reviewed. A beautiful surprise was in store. Is he as good as, say, Mendelssohn? It is probably a meaningless question for he does not sound like Mendelssohn. He rings out with a personal take on the music in the air, then. What more can one expect? It is well enough. No. 4 is a gem. I am glad to have it. I suggest you spend some time with this CD.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Wagner, Symphony in C major, in E Major (Fragment), MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jun Markl

Wagner (1813-83) changed everything. His major operas brought a new way of thinking about motives and Tristan helped usher in the modern period via the pushing of harmonic language to the borders of tonality. His orchestration was bold, daring and insightful. But his concentration on opera left the purely symphonic realm to others. Composers like Bruckner came along and in part applied Wagner's innovations to the non-vocal worlds. Of course Bruckner and Mahler (and Richard Strauss) did a great deal more than that, but they were nevertheless indebted to Wagner for where they went. And so, for that matter, was Schoenberg, but that brings up more than we can handle for this post.

Interestingly enough, Wagner in his early years did write a bit of symphonic music. The two works that have come down to us, The Symphony in C major and the Symphony in E major (fragment) are available in a new Naxos release by the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jun Markl (Naxos 8.573413).

The back of the jewel case tells us that these two symphonies "stand as a tribute to Wagner's passion for his great idol Beethoven," And indeed, one hears such elements clearly throughout. They were student works, written when Wagner was in his teens and early twenties. They are remarkable for that.

But even at that early date there is something rather Wagnerian happening with these works--which may only be to say that Wagner sprung from the Beethoven ethos. But no, one gets glimpses of something further along, even if in infancy. The E Major is a fragment. Felix Mottl completed the orchestration much later. Wagner was nowhere near where he would ultimately be. Yet neither of these works seem immature fluff; they are if nothing else supremely serious undertakings. The C major is the more involved of the two, as one might imagine even before hearing.

There is thematic originality to be heard within the Beethovenian mode. Some parts seem pretty closely derivative but then there can be developmental sections that go their own way. In the end this music is of extraordinary interest to those who know the mature Wagner intimately.

Yes, you can hear the kernels of the later composer here. But you also hear a thematic naivete that was the Wagner of those years, a not unattractively expressive and talented youth saying what he could.

The music brings a goodly amount of delight. These are no masterpieces but they weather surprisingly well. Anyone who wants to trace Wagner's development will find this CD enlightening, but also a good listen in itself.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ted Hearne, Sound from the Bench, The Crossing

The Supreme Court "Citizens United" decision was, to say the very least, decidedly nothing to do with the upholding of the Constitution as the Founders thought of it. It was a perversion of logic, a fiction that has lead us to anti-democratic infusions of great wealth to undermine the election process. I am not the only one to think this. It is one of the more dangerous farces to confront us in our lifetime. Only one of more than a few, but an especially insidious one.

Composer Ted Hearne clearly is one of "us," not a man with or speaking for the influence of the grand cartel of the rich. His Sound from the Bench (Cantaloupe Music 21126) is all about Citizens United, a nightmare in a sort of poetic haze that may sublimate the horror of the judgment, but no, does not seek to diminish it. This is a choral work of a postmodern, sometimes minimalist sort. It features (as did yesterday's) the landmark choral group the Crossing with Donald McNally at the helm, plus some avant rock textures from two electric guitars and drums.

Where to begin? The corporation is a person, a ventriloquist dummy in the end. Not at all human but masquerading as one, manipulated by a wealth-manufacturing entity and acting in its interests. Hearne uses various texts to set off the decision and lament the demise of our own personhood, the degradation of the human being unit that is the core idea behind representative government.

The music has a great deal going for it. There are sophisticated multi-part passages, the deliberately banal cutting in to dramatize things, and a great deal in between. It is a work where I must admit on the strictly musical level I greatly appreciate much of it, and some elements less so. But the good outweighs the less good with a balance decidedly tipped onto the positive side. And the subject matter could not be more important to us.

So I thank Maestro Hearne for this and recommend for sure that you hear it!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century

Like any style of music, there are Post-modern composers who write beautiful, breathtaking works and others who either are inconsistent or just do not have the talent, sad to say. Of the whole bunch Gavin Bryars to me is decidedly in the first category. His music, basically anything I've heard of his, has that special something that comes through whatever the premise. A new CD,  The Fifth Century (ECM New Series 2495) brings us two choral works that are stunning in their sonic brilliance and reaffirm my appreciation of Bryars as an important voice of today.

The album features the extraordinary vibrato-less purity of the choral ensemble The Crossing, conducted by David Nally. It is hard to imagine a better performance of these works and the ECM sound brings out the music with a heightened brightness.

The opening title work combines the Crossing with the equally appropriate sounds of the saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet. Bryars brings the two groups into close intersection in harmonically uncliched, always stimulating and ravishing ways. He has perfect control over the ambient and linear dimensions as he hears them. Indeed no matter how many times I listen to this work it sounds ever fresh.

The same is true but in a somewhat more intimate way on "Two Love Songs" for female choir a capella.

I come away from this music reluctantly. I want to come back to it as soon as possible. Does the awakening of nature on these fine days have something to do with it? It seems like the open hopeful choral sounds here help "improve" nature or provide it a most evocative soundtrack. I am sure whatever the season this music will give us pause, help us revel in the sensuous mysteries of existence.

Does this sound like a strong recommendation? I hope so. Because it is. Wonderful.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Oracle Hysterical, New Vintage Baroque, Passionate Pilgrim

I was awakened yesterday from my private world of dreams and expectations when I helped my nephew negotiate the ins and outs of a used car purchase from a dealer. As I was waiting for his credit to go through, I struck up a conversation with young ladies in the office. The talk chanced on music. "He makes CDs! Yes, he gave us one of them!" my nephew chimed in. Well just the format elicited reactions of astonishment and disbelief. I was an impossible anachronism. When one of them asked me if my music sounded like [name I didn't recognize], I tried in desperation to backtrack to common ground. I mentioned George Harrison. No. "Who is that?" I gave up. There is a specific audience for the music I cover on these pages, and the music I myself make, and they were not it. Or so it seemed.

If it weren't for yesterday I would say that today's CD might appeal to a general audience as well as the classically oriented. Now I am more inclined to say "A specific wider audience," but perhaps not those who have grown up on the pop music that fills their earbuds.

Nonetheless Oracle Hysterical, New Vintage Baroque and their joint collaborative album Passionate Pilgrim (VISIONINTO ART VIA -12) gives us a very appealing program of contemporary songs that one can profitably think of in terms of the principal ensemble's name New Vintage Baroque.  As the liner notes assert, this is a music "dedicated to the creation of a 21st century repertoire for early instruments."

Absolutely, that is what we have. What does that mean? This is an adventure in song form, of the modern day yet bardically story-telling. It is a contemporary tonal music that gives us some striking songs that have both a currency and a rustic feel. It does not have much in the way of Baroque counterpoint or that period's pronounced periodicity. But then it is readily distinguishable from the ordinarily modern nonetheless.

The New Vintage ensemble was formed in 2011 by Baroque oboist Lindsay McIntosh. This latest set is comprised of contemporary songs composed by members of Oracle Hysterical.  To clarify the album is very much a joint effort by New Vintage Baroque and Oracle Hysterical (the latter a quartet of bassoon, double bass-viola da gamba, and the voices of Elliot Cole and Majel Connery; the former an eight-person chamber ensemble of baroque instruments). The four members of Oracle Hysterical give us a set of songs that bear close listening.

One revels in the lyric sensibilities and pronounced baroque sonics of the music. It sounds spring-like, the sound of poetic springs celebrated by the bards of an age long gone. It is not so much a nostalgia for an age we never knew, though that is part of the charm. It is mostly perhaps born of an urgently aesthetic need to reach back to earlier music to craft a music anew. You don't have to hear this in the spring, but it has the sound of a renewal we might feel the need of as I write this.

It is music that will come alive with repeated hearings. The songs and arrangements are distinctly unique. I am glad to have this album and I recommend it warmly to anyone seeking something new that is born like Phoenix from the ashes of its past!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Villa-Lobos, Complete Guitar Manuscripts, Andrea Bissoli, 3 Volume Set

 Throughout composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' career (1887-1959), the guitar was a central voice in his music, and he among many other things is considered a father figure in the development of modern, folk-laced music for the instrument.

Guitarist Andrea Bissoli is the central component in a three-volume set now available as an integral boxed edition. The Guitar Manuscripts: Masterpieces and Lost Works (Naxos 8.573117) is as the title suggests, a collection of his most illustrious works involving the guitar and also a worthwhile collection of works until recently lost to us or unheard, plus transcriptions of music not originally published in guitar versions, or guitar works transcribed for ensemble.

I have previously reviewed all three volumes separately on these pages. Type "Villa-Lobos" in the search box above to access those three volumes.

Suffice to say that this is a very rewarding anthology of works for those new to Villa-Lobos as well as the seasoned listener. Andrea Bissoli and his collaborators give us a stirring view of the considered yet spirited music of the master. These is enough here that is new or re-arranged to supply anyone interested and following the composer's output with a fresh take.

Highly recommended!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Olivier Messiaen, Livre du Saint Sacrement, Colin Andrews

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), without question, was the most important and innovative composer for the organ in our times. He left us a body of work of incomparable modern power, mystery and depth. The gargantuan 1984 work Livre du Saint Sacrement (Loft Recordings LRCD-1152-53 2-CDs) is doubtless one of his most advanced, complex and spiritually probing works--and as I understand it, his last for the instrument. Colin Andrews plummets its depth and carefully renders its many moods and interworkings.

The full score is divided into 28 movements, carefully sequenced to give us the musical equivalents of the Catholic ritual of communion and theological-mystical-devotional-biblical dimensions of the experience.

The compositional elements, as the liners aptly inform us, were a synthesis of Messiaen's mature techniques and procedures: Greek and Hindu rhythmic forms, Messiaen's transliteration of sacred words into musical utterances, a very personal serialism, limited transposition as defining the harmonies, plainsong and birdsong (the latter of birds Jesus might have heard locally during his lifetime).

This is a huge undertaking that gives us a largely abstract, ultra-modern and extraordinarily meditative sequence that requires concentrated focus in the listening process. Here is a man whose religious convictions led to an extraordinarily singular universe of sounds, a musical language like no other, a lifetime's understanding of the full spectrum of the cathedral organ and its capabilities.

In the hands of Colin Andrews the work speaks with a cosmic flourish and deeply interior dialog that is movingly spectacular, experientially radical yet tied to a deep spiritual understanding. It is literally words or feelings put into music but not easily converted back into words. By 1984 Messiaen had become a transcendent being of musical sound.

This is Messiaen's message to us all, and some of the most difficult and involved, ecstatically rewarding organ works I have ever heard. Give this music your absorption and it will return the effort with a glimpse of the composer's intimations of eternity.

Highly recommended, but not to be taken lightly!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Granados, Goyescas, Yoonie Han

I have a bit of a soft spot for Granados (1867-1916)--and the recent Naxos series recording many of his orchestral works (that I covered here a while ago) has given me much to appreciate. But whether or not one is a Granados convert one will likely take readily to his most famous work, the Goyescas for solo piano, a six-part suite that has been recently newly recorded by pianist Yoonie Han (Steinway & Sons 30067).

The music is all about Francisco Goya, the famous Spanish painter, and his work. Each movement depicts a scene from an imagined love story of a Spanish Majo (bohemian, mostly lower-class Spaniards of Goyas' time) and his would-be Maja.

The music was introduced in its original piano setting in 1911. He later crafted an opera out of its motives, which debuted at the Met in 1916. Granados and his wife attended. Their ship on the return voyage was torpedoed (it was WWI), and Granados died as he attempted to rescue his drowning wife. (Thank you to the liners for that. I did not know.)

The piano version of the work has enjoyed the love of music listeners since its premiere. It is an extremely lyrical and magnetic work that shows Granados' folk-Spanish, quasi-impressionist, melodic-harmonic gift as well or better than anything else he wrote.

The South Korean native Yoonie Han gives us a glowing reading of the music on the recording at hand. She embodies the flowing melodic presence, the grace and stunning phrasings of each movement with all the poetic nuance the work demands.

I've heard some ravishing versions of the Goyescas, but I must say that Ms. Han rivals the very best.

The recording quality is superb. The music sings on. Yoonie Han triumphs. This version makes me very happy. Need I say more? There is no better introduction to Granados than this.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Franzoni, Vespro per la Festa di Santa Barbara

It means virtually nothing that I do not believe I have heard the music of Amante Franzoni (flourished 1605-1630). The Renaissance  (but also the Baroque) period produced many scores of composers who are not regularly performed these days, though many are extraordinarily capable. Judging by the recent release of Franzoni's Vespro per la Festa di Santa Barbara  (Brilliant 95344), he was one of those we should hear more often, certainly.

The blend of chants, sacred choral and instrumental parts to the Vespro is very appealing, especially in this performance by Francesco Moi conducting the amassed forces of Accademia Degli Invaghiti (a nine member choral group with accompanying theorbo and two organs), the Concerto Palatino with their two cornettos and six trombones, and the Cappella Santa Barbara handling the Gregorian Chant passages. It is beautifully a part of the period, inspired, resounding gloriously in the Mantua Cathedral setting.

The chant interludes refresh and set off the moving choral-instrumental movements. As you first listen you hear a brief Resposorium that many will recognize as I did. It is borrowed from Monteverdi's "Vespers for the Virgin Mary."

The music that follows is in keeping with the period and place. Franzoni flourished in the Italian city of Mantua, working for the Gonzaga duchy as early as 1607 and serving as maestro di cappella for the Basilica of Santa Barbara from 1612 through 1630. The Feast of Santa Barbara was the most important religious celebration in Mantua during Franzoni's tenure. She was the city's patron saint and so the vespers in her name allowed Manzoni to create an elaborate musical commemoration in her honor.

The CD captures the music in considerably spirited and in haunting ways. Any early music appreciator will no doubt welcome this music into their world, a fabulous recording at a good price, too!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Thierry Pecou, Orquoy, Chango, Marcha de la Humanidad, Orchestra National de France

The complex of components that channel into a contemporary new music composer can be enormous, and ultimately the outcome can be original but on the other hand is all-the-more frequently not.

So in the end we listen and open ourselves up to whatever we encounter. In the case of Thierry Pecou, and the album of orchestral works Orquoy, Chango, Marcha de la Humanidad (Wergo 7318-2) I immediately was intrigued by what I heard. But what was it?

As I listened for the first time, I turned to the CD booklet for guidance. Like anybody who listens seriously to previously unknown composers-music, I find that the liner notes often can situate the music so you can go on with some understanding. Wergo has long been a label crucial in the new music scene, so I tend to trust what they might say. The notes told me, hey, Latin America is a key. Think of Villa-Lobos, Revueltas, Chavez, how they synthesized European modernism with local folk traditions and influences. Then think of a new generation of composers and how they extended modernity into further abstract territory. That in part explains Pecou. My initial recognition of color and strong rhythmical elements might have reminded me indirectly of Varese, Messiaen, Boulez, yes, but there was the (OK I'll use the word though it ain't gonna sound down-to-earth) autochthonous (indigenous) aspect to consider in Pecou's music. And ultimately what he does with all of this is very original. The liner notes helped point me in the right direction. My ears did the rest.

The opening "Orquoy" for large orchestra is very much a good place to start. The music jumps forward with an almost whimsical but unerringly new kind of sonance and presentation.

Each of the three works has something very rewarding going on--at a height of high modernism but still anchored to the earth like a folk rooted tree whose height into the sky is equalled by the long and mostly unseen labyrinthian root appendages.

Jonathan Stockhammer conducts the Orchestra National de France on this program and to my ears he devotes all the care and insight that one might hope for in such unusually original fare.

The album gives me an excellent view onto Thierry Pecou's musical universe. Anyone who appreciates the high modernist paths and/or South American modernism-nationalism will I hope find this music very much to his or her liking. I did.

Very recommended.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

J.S. Bach, Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Movses Pogossian

When it comes to Johann Sebastian Bach's works for solo violin and solo cello, it seems to me that their popularity and influence are at a peak. Or is it just that my appetite for hearing them has become more insatiable as I seem to continually hear them anew? But it is not just me. I have come across and mentioned on these pages a number of interesting compositions in the contemporary new music scene that make use of solo Bach in creating new confluences. And the number of new releases of recorded performances of the solo works seems higher than ever before...and more diverse in terms of the baroque to modern spectrum of possibilities.

I won't try to explain why this may be so. I cannot easily say, except to note the possibility that we are in a new baroque era ourselves, aesthetically speaking. A discussion on that would tip the balance of this review away from the music itself, so I must cut it short. Regardless, the solo works speak to us today as some of the most direct expressions of Bach's genius, surely. And string players have for a long time had the tackling of these works as a key part of their training, no? What counts in the end is their beauty, their facing of the musical cosmos with just four strings and a wealth of inventive brilliance.

Armenian violinist Movses Pogossian brings us a new version of Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin on 3-CDs (New Focus Recordings FCR 178) and I for one am glad he did. I've been immersed in the recording for a couple of weeks, sounding a constant as the parade of life passes by, anchoring me in the unassuming but vastly rich music that counters all that life might hold in store, or amplifies it, depending on how life is at the time. For me it is more a countering these days.

At any rate Pogossian does not bring us an ultra-baroque reading, with catgut strings, baroque bows and a litany of ornamentational end points. He choses the conventional modern violin and a straightforward but feelingful production of the six works. Nonetheless it sounds very true to Bach, so I guess one could say it is a middle-of-the-road version. Pogossian gets inside the music and gives us strong performances of the very sturdy sections, then slows down to savor the movingly preludian portions.

In the end Pogossian sings from his depths and thereby channels Bach in ways that bring us joy. I most certainly recommend this version if you don't have one yet. It is a benchmark for how we hear the music today. It also extends and compliments other versions, you who like me cannot seem to get enough.

Pogossian is a true artist. His Bach rings with its own creative truth. That is a great thing.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Johann Simon Mayr, Amore non soffre opposizioni, Franz Hauk

The classical period of opera, partially because of the expense of a production, partially because of conservative, certain masterworks-only repertoire tendencies, has not been given as extensive a coverage of what was produced as one might wish. There are multiple versions of, say, Mozart's The Magic Flute or Rossini's The Barber of Seville available, but if you wanted to find a full opera by Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), you would probably be out of luck. Until now. It is true that we do not miss what we do not know--but with Mayr we are missing something good, someone we should know.

Naxos with their most welcome, adventurist releases of neglected composers and/or works, has been coming out with some Mayr overtures and operas (I've covered a few here recently), and so we now have a 2-CD set of Amore non soffre opposizioni (Naxos 8.660361-62), conducted by Franz Hauk, the man instrumental in the current Mayr revival.

The reasons this opera and Mayr himself enjoyed popularity in the Italy of the classic age are the same reasons this opera appeals to us today if we give it a chance. There are no recitatives, there is a vibrant tunefulness, a sprightly demeanor, and sophisticated harmonies and instrumentation. We are treated to a very good performance--here by engaging, idiomatic soloists and the East-West European Festival Orchestra.

As you listen for a while, you notice a kind of synthesis between the Italian influence of Rossini and the German one of Mozart, which in Mayr's hands seems unforced and natural.

That this is in every way a carefully conceived and enthusiastic performance goes a long way towards bringing Mayr alive for us.

Anyone who loves classical-era opera will find this release delightful.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Rhona Clarke, A Different Game, The Fidelio Trio

In Rhona Clarke's very first album dedicated solely to her own music, she proves to be one of Ireland's most interesting and convincing living modern composers. A Different Game (Metier 28561) features the considerable dynamic expressive capabilities of The Fidelio Trio performing six chamber compositions that stand out for the articulate flow of modern musical ideas and the structural strengths of the overarching form each work takes.

The sophisticated advanced modern tonal pallette of her  Trios Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (the latter bearing the descriptive title "A Different Game") have a haunting, sometimes somewhat melancholy caste. They have thematic clout in a slightly neo-classical mode. The Fidelio Trio gives us spirited, detailed readings of the works that feel just right. They also tackle expressively the three additional chamber works that make use of smaller instrumental groupings: "Gleann Da Loch" (for piano solo), the ambient wonders of "Con Coro" for violin, cello and tape, and the reflective cello solo "In Umbra."

"Piano Trio No. 4 'A Different Game'" moves the trio concept along with a spiky, more playfully modern demeanor than Nos. 2 and 3, but in the end each of these works reveal aspects of Clarke's magnetic compositional personality, her brittle and atmospheric modern lyrical immediacy.

Clarke comes through as an original stylist and a brilliant musical conversationalist on this disk. There is always something there to pique your musical imagination, never a moment when inspiration flags. I find the entire program heartily stimulating and nearly endlessly rewarding.

It makes me want to hear more of her work! And it gives me great pleasure in the listening. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Kapralova, Complete Piano Music, Giorgio Koukl

Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940) led a brief life but marked it by writing music of an individual, modern nature that alas only gives us a tantalizing but fully formed glimpse of what she might have been. The Complete Piano Music (Grand Piano 708) shows us both a robust and paradoxically a delicate sensibility, a maturity of approach conjoined with a youthful impetuosity, all of which seems in retrospect to compensate for the all-too-short musical and physical life she lead. The back of the jewel box to this CD states that she is "now considered the most important female Czech composer of the 20th century." I find no reason to disagree.

Giorgio Koukl gives us an impassioned and well burnished performance of these gems. There is a quasi-romantic veneer to the earliest especially, a touching impressionistic lyricism that breaks through with a near breathtaking loveliness (hear the "April Preludes") and a budding modernist-folkish originality that has a strong Czech component but as a whole creates a world we would not otherwise know.

There is a good deal to absorb in the 65 minute playing time of this CD. of eleven works, four never before heard in recorded form, ranging from 1931-32 when she was but 16-17 years old, to some of her very last works of 1938-40. The music gradually becomes somewhat daringly modernistic in keeping with the flourishing of the Czechoslovak Republic prior to WWII, of a piece with that world but singularly showing her own brand of things.

There is some connection to Janacek to be heard, though never in some obvious way. Indeed, her father Vaclav Kapral was a pupil of the master composer. But in the end this in its finest moments (and there are many) is irredeemably Kapralovian. a young talent following her own muse. It is one of the 20th century's tragedies that she was to make it only to age 25, apparently a victim of Typhoid. The world lost what might well have been a major voice in the music. As it is there are strong intimations of more than mere mortality, some really beautiful works for us to savor and retain in our ears.

It is all here, all of the piano music. I am captivated with it and I would bet you would be, too. Some 77 years after her death we can still feel the musical pulse quickening in her aural self. Eerie, tragic, but triumphant for what little chance she had to give us her musical vision and what she left for us to contemplate. Appreciate that we are here to experience her music now. Not every life is long!

Very recommended.