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Monday, August 21, 2017

Tonu Korvitz, Moorland Elegies

Music that turns out as, or even more evocative than its title suggests leaves us transported, if all is right. That ends up how I feel about Tonu Korvits's Moorland Elegies (2015) (Ondine 1306-2). It is a nine-part work for mixed choir and string orchestra. The texts are poems by Emily Bronte. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under Risto Joost give to the score all the potentially moody ambience that is inherent in its beautiful tone painting contents. It has some similarities with the ambiances of fellow Estonian Arvo Part. It partakes even more in a haunting after-modern impressionism so that it readily serves as a contemporary model of what can be done.

Korvits himself says of the work that it is a journey "into the darkest, most mysterious corners  of loneliness to where one doesn't dare peek twice." Composers are apt perhaps to wax hyperbolic about what a work purports to do. In this case though, it is almost an understatement. The eerie poetic revery builds sonic worlds that have the capacity to poetically transfix, and they do so without release. It is the sort of work that silence or any everyday sound you hear after the work has ended takes on the coloration of the music the remains in the active imagination. Moorland Elegies colors your world so thoroughly that for some time afterwards nothing seems to return to the crisp mundane everydayness that you normally operate within.

What can be said musically can rarely be said so well that there is no mistaking its content. Moorland Elegies does this in magical terms, where that which is concrete in its building blocks transforms into an ethereal presence and an ever-liquidian flow that refers back to long stretches of vegetative leveling, wind that states its disregard of human presence, and the totality of being utterly alone within such a world.

To say it eschews a romantic sentimentality is the case. It instead gives forth with an "after all, this is what remains" kind of dynamic finality. There is the mysterious ineffable quality of Ives' "The Unanswered Question." This work gives us the unquestionable answer. That in the end is the historically positioned subject at a point where all the hurly burly of past experience disappears into a haze of not-self.

There is singularity of purpose and rare totality of tonal imagery to be heard on this recording. To listen is to enter a world where we matter by disconnecting from the world outside of the desolate moor-scape and immersing ourselves fully in its facticity.

Nothing quite has this titanically fragile moodiness. It is a world that is post-pastoral, way beyond the nostalgia for a lost world, but rather a lost-in-the-world solitude. All is what it is, and that is regretful in its beauty. There is more I could say. The main thing is how the music stuns by an uncanny analogic juxtiposition of subject-text and tonal refractory magic.


Friday, August 18, 2017

J.S. Bach, Inventions & Sinfonias, Karin Kei Nagano

Who "owns" Western Civilization? The answer is everybody. For the classical music canon, for example, anyone is encouraged to listen, anyone to perform, anyone to devote a life to it or just let it ornament their existence. That J.S.Bach is German is a fact. Germans look to him with pride, yet he belongs to the entire world. It is true in the end of all music.

That L.A. born pianist Karin Kei Nagano chooses to perform Bach's Inventions & Sinfonias (Analekta 2-8771) is wholly a part of the picture. She is a very talented artist, completely steeped in classical tradition and performance practices and yet she also gives us crisply poetic interpretive versions of these masterworks that inject her very own sensibility. This is how it should be.

If in my opening lines if I say the obvious it is only with a righteous indignation because of what local White Supremacists have been doing: attempting to hijack the world's cultural heritage to serve their own evil agenda. (Among other unspeakable things.) It will not stand.

So as it happens Bach's Inventions & Sinfonias (BWV 772-801) are gems of the highest order. Yet Bach simply wrote them for his family and students as a pedagogical device to enable them to gain fluency on the keyboard. In the process he created a set of contrapuntal works that mark his genius as surely as anything he ever wrote.

If you took classical piano lessons the chances are good that you learned them. If you did or did not matters little in the end, since Ms. Nagano plays them all with great interpretive sensitivity so that they all sing out in all their glory. She does not generally take things at a maddening clip. Instead she seeks to bring out each part with clarity and poetic poise.

Wonderful versions of wonderful music. Time and identity virtually cease to exist when listening.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stephen Dodgson, 24 Inventions for Harpsichord, Ekaterina Likhina

Nearly every day lately I am surprised to hear something unknown and unexpected. Today's classical-modern selection clocks in and it's another I never might have known were it not for the CD playing now on my player. I speak of the World Premiere Recording of something by Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013). Namely we have Ekaterina Likhina playing Dodgson's 24 Inventions for Harpsichord (Naxos 9.70262).

Here is a modern English composer of obvious caliber. He presented a first set of inventions in 1955, when he was only 21 years old.  Three more sets followed through 1990. All four sets of inventions comprise the full 24 performed here. The short pieces all have a Scarlatti-like rhythmic drive, expressiveness, and compact incisiveness, thriving within a chromatic-diatonic realm one might call neo-classical without doing the music an injustice, although the composer himself might have had something to say about that category. It is another old-in-the-new set of works, with an obvious nod to earlier inventions but a 20th century modern outlook at base.

Stephen's widow has been on hand, happily, to guide Ekaterina Likhina on tempo, notation and character. The resulting performances sound to me definitive. Liners say that these Inventions are among the most important works for harpsichord in our times. Based on the more well known modern works I have heard repeatedly I would have to say that these compare most favorably.

There is much excellent music to absorb. The complexities and inventive detail in these works demand multiple and unsuperficial hearings to grasp fully. It is worth the trouble, since in the end there is a great deal to like!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Frederico Moreno Torroba, Guitar Concertos 2

Last February 13, 2016 I reviewed on these pages the first volume of Torroba (1891-1982) Guitar Concertos featuring guitarists Pepe Romero and Vincente Coves, with the Malaga Philharmonic under Manuel Coves. We now contemplate the second volume (Naxos 8.573503), with all the same save the appearance of the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra.

For the second outing Pepe Romero handles the solo duties on "Homenaje a la seguidilla" (1962) and the "Tonada concertante" (1975-80). Vicente Coves takes over for the "Concierto de Castilla" (1960).

Romero's pupil Vincente Coves plays as beautifully as his mentor. The Extremadura Orchestra sounds every bit as idiomatic and vibrant as one would hope for in this music.

The music is captivating, with Castilian-Spanish folk elements vying with a kind of neo-impressionist shimmer and lyricism. The solo guitar parts have bravura and introspection at the forefront alternatingly.

The three works that comprise Volume 2 of Torroba's Guitar Concerto outing continue the wonderful fare and make for a beautiful listen. I heartily recommend it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mark John McEncroe, Symphonic Suites 1 & 2, A Medieval Saga

Living Australian composer Mark John McEncroe came to composing relatively late, spending his 20s and 30s as music label manager for EMI Australia and then EMI Sweden. He returned to Australia and began in earnest piano studies, clarinet studies and eventually theory and composition, the latter with Margaret Brandman from 2003 to 2012. He began composing a number of symphonic poems with orchestration help from Mark Salibus, with whom he continues to study.

Earlier this year Parma Records released a recording of Mark John McEncroe's "Natalie's Suite" for orchestra along with several solo piano works. The present release continues the relationship with a two-CD recording of the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armore performing McEncroe's Symphonic Suites 1 & 2: A Medieval Saga (Navona 6116). The orchestration is handled deftly by McEncroe's mentor Mark Salibus.

There is a series of thematically intertwined continuities that serves to unify both suites into a cohesive whole. The two suites musically depict a story of Middle Age political upheaval and its aftermath.

What strikes me most on hearing and rehearing the lengthy two-part work is the way the sprawling unfolding of the score in a consistently minor mode serves to put this music into a kind of timeless world zone. It has a sort of mysterious east-meets-west aura about it. Indeed, its minor ornamental continuity reminds me a little of some of Hovhaness's more Armenian tinged works, only with less focus on a specific region or time and perhaps more of an alternate contemporary-in-archaic mode that straddles a wider set of allusions.

One is left with a singular impression of a kind of organicized stylistic unity and flow that places the music outside of time yet also anchors itself fully in a post-modern kind of present. It transcends a typical pomo vision by unfolding more according to modal-flowing, flowering lines that allude to early music melodic expression without actually quoting or directly assimilating it.

I am left with an impression of something complete unto itself yet rather thoroughly outside contemporary modern music currents. It virtually stands apart from any modern mainstream realms yet in the end reflects our times as through a lens into the past.

Something entirely different, this is. Any adventurous soul may well readily take to this music as I have. Happily recommended.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Johann Mattheson, 12 Suites for Harpsichord, Gilbert Rowland

Of masterful baroque composers there are seemingly more than a few who for whatever turn of fate we have nigh well forgotten. Today we have an instructive example in Johann Mattheson (1681-1764). We get a solid look at his music for solo keys in his 1714 opus 12 Suites for Harpsichord (Athene 23301 3-CD set) as spiritedly and authentically realized by Gilbert Rowland.

The liner notes for this release tell us that he lived in Handel's time and indeed was a friend of his. He composed, played organ, wrote, danced, fenced and was multilingual. His friendship with Handel suffered a setback when they fought a duel over Handel's involvement in a performance of Mattheson's opera "Cleopatra." Happily no one was hurt and their friendship resumed.

His operatic career as singer ended when he became the secretary for the English Ambassador in 1705. By 1715 he was Music Director at Hamburg Cathedral. Increasing deafness forced him to give up that position in 1728. He composed numerous choral works during that time, but tragically much of his music has been lost to us during the bombings of WWII. The liners reassure us that the opera "Cleopatra" survives along with a good deal of instrumental works, one of which of course is the "12 Suites" that forms the whole of the current release.

The suites combine homophonic and contrapuntal elements, and are made up of dance music and pure movements that serve to introduce and connect the whole of each suite. In that they were like Handel and Bach's forays into this mode, but also you can hear at times a French element, a similarity to Rameau in the briskly kinetic but lyrical effusions.

The "12 Suites" establish for us Mattheson's idiomatic immersion in the baroque of his time but also a definite originality.

The music comes alive thanks to Gilbert Rowland's apposite and enthusiastic performances. The set will appeal to anyone who revels in baroque harpsichord. Mattheson may be tragically obscure these days but he is undeservedly so. The "Suites" give you many reasons to listen and enjoy. Take the plunge on this one, should you be so inclined. I do not think you will be disappointed. I for one am glad to hear and in the future re-hear these unknown gems!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Karol Szymanowski, Piano Music, Barbara Karaskiewicz

Arthur Rubenstein did more to introduce Western audiences to the piano music of Poland's brilliant composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) than anyone alive in the 20th century. If today his music is not as frequently performed as it might be, the masterful quality and expressivity of the oeuvre as a whole demands a serious immersion in the best of it if we are to understand the 20th century musical strengths and poetics of Eastern European classical-modernism.

Barbara Karaskiewicz combines virtuosity and interpretive acuity to be a near ideal exponent of a series of breathtaking Szymanowski works in her volume of his Piano Music (Divine Art 25151) that has recently become available.

What makes this album especially attractive is its intelligent mix of early and later works. The "Nine Preludes, Op. 1" and the "Four Etudes, Op. 4" are followed by the later "Masques, Op. 34" and the "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62."

The earlier music has something of the late romantic virtuoso brilliance that so overtook the musical sensibilities of 19th century piano music via Chopin and Liszt. Even then though the Szymanowski "Preludes" and "Etudes" included here have a distinctively original individuality and a zeitgeist reflecting the winds of change blowing transformatively over Europe and the music of the era.

By the time the composer completed his "Masques, Op. 34" and his "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62" there is a distinct movement toward a 20th century modernism conjoined with his ever-prevailing rhapsodistic and poetic demeanor.

The early and later phases of Szymanowski's piano music as we hear them on this album are not a matter of  a contrast between tentative student works and mature mastery. There is a stylistic shift to be followed, surely, but the whole of this music shows a full command over pianistic resources and an highly inventive originality that sings out from first to last.

Ms. Karaskiewicz puts a sense of clarity and passion into each movement, a genuinely sympathetic lyrical and dramatic touch that is so needed for a vital interpretation of this most expressive composer.

The end result is a very happy meeting of pianist and composer. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a better single CD that brings to us all that makes Szymanowski's piano music important and movingly alive. Here is a great place to start if you want to know why the composer is a central figure in the Polish early modern period. The selection and performances are equally rewarding to one who already knows something of the music. Barbara Karaskiewicz puts it all before us in glowing terms. Do not hesitate to grab a copy of this album!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Music from SEAMUS, Vol. 1, The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States

Electro-acoustic music, in its "electronic music" and "musique concrete" incarnations, was one of New Music's most potent and advanced gestures from the '50s through the '70s. There were even best selling albums such as Walter (Wendy) Carlos' Switched on Bach. And then, almost as quickly, Electronic Music went out of fashion for a time, Nevertheless the Millennium and beyond has brought a resurgence. Music from SEAMUS (EAM-9301) documents the electronic pre-Renaissance, in a first volume of works released under the auspices of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. It covers the period between 1980 and 1991, a somewhat dark time for the reception of such music but as we hear on this volume, a time when excellent work was still being produced.

The six compositions on the anthology give us a window on some state-of-the-art developments. Four works feature conventional instruments (and voice in one example) and processed and/or synthesized electric sounds. Two are works for electro-acoustic forces alone.

The stylistic parameters fall rather squarely into a high modernist and beyond sound color and open-form expansive orientation. On the works for instruments and electroacoustics there is a consistent attempt to extend the scope of acoustical instruments with synergies between the two realms. The all-electroacoustic works develop aural landscapes of varying densities.

For your information, the following is a round up of the composers, works and configurations: James Mobberley opens the program with his "Spontaneous Combustion" (1991) for alto saxophone and computer generated accompaniment; it is followed by James Phelps and his "Chordlines" (1991) for computer-generated tape; next up is Anna Rubin and her "Remembering" (1989, rev. 1993) for soprano, piano and tape; then follows Stephen David Beck and "Improvisation on Strange Attractors v1.0b" (1990) for bassoon and Virtual Instrument Paradigm; Bernardo Feldman and his "Still Life" (1986) for tape follows; the concluding work is Kwok-ping John Chen's "Ring Shades" (1990) for solo percussion with two-channel tape.

What we experience on this volume are a series of works that deserve fully a hearing today. They should not bask in the obscurity that has been the fate of much electro-acoustic work towards the end of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the history of later New Music will find this enlightening. Anyone with open ears will find the hearing of it all pleasureable. Give it a listen, by all means.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Gyorgy Kurtag, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

I was tangentially a part of a Facebook thread yesterday. Implied was a question: Who listens to New Music these days? One answer is that they are generally the same audience who listens to classical music in general. Often enough that is true in the concert setting, given that a contemporary work may be a part of a program along with older classics. In the matter of those who purchase New Music recordings, it still can apply. However, there also is a group of listeners who respond more exclusively to the new and avant but do not necessarily collect and get into the earlier classical music. They are a smaller group. They may listened to advanced jazz, rock, and/or world more than Bach. This blog caters to both and manages to get a respectable readership out of the two camps. I of course appreciate the patronage.

When it is a matter of today's offering, either group might be well served by the contents. It is an important release from a composer who has gotten attention over the years as a major figure in the New Music, Gyorgy Kurtag.  Today we have a worthwhile compilation of three-CDs: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07).

It is an all-encompassing collection of compositions by the Hungarian high modernist, nicely recorded and very well performed by soloists, guests, the Asko/Schonberg Ensemble and the Netherlands Radio Choir under the guidance of conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.

The recording of  the numerous works on this set was a labor of love. De Leeuw has performed each of these a number of times in the last twenty years. The master recordings for the set took shape from March 2013 through July 2016. Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag were intimately involved both before and after each session. Their detailed evaluation of each result sometimes led to De Leeuw's re-recording of some of the music, both sections and an entire re-performance as deemed necessary.

The results met the full approval of the Kurtags and so the music stands as a benchmark for performances to come. Only a thorough personal immersion in the recordings make that plain. Kurtag is not a composer easily categorized. The reasons for that are not hard to find. His music covers a wide swath of possibilities in a high modernist and near tonality realm that ever bestirs in new configurations, dramatic ebbs and flows, sheer power or reflective unwindings.

The wealth of works cover a long span between 1959 and 2011. Most fall somewhere in the middle years. Not all include the choir. The ones that do show a natural feel for musico-vocal-instrumental declamation. The purely instrumental works are filled with color and a shifting focus on ongoing event structures.

Some eleven works make up the totality of the program. I come away from the set with a strong attraction to the music and a feeling that we are in the presence of a living master of true importance. A work-by-work breakdown of what is present might have a tedious quality for the lightening engage-and-move-on readership here on the net. There is just too much and because of the original quality of Kurtag's music it would take many paragraphs to do justice to what we get. Instead, I will say that this set underscores the unvarying quality of Kurtag's music, as it sets you on a riveting journey through the thickets, the broad panoramas, the high mountain peaks and peaceful valleys of what makes Kurtag so absorbing and worthwhile.

Spend time with this set and I suspect you will, like I have, get a distinct tingle of satisfaction. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Brian Current, Faster Still, Chamber Works

Brian Current, a living Canadian composer, manages on his CD Faster Still (Centrediscs 24217) to toggle between high modernism (in his advanced whirlwinds of colorful execution and sometimes advanced, edgy tonality) and postmodernism (in his use of tonality and sometimes in the notefull presentation). As a composer of his time, he is not afraid to mesh modern and postmodern elements in a single work, so that virtually anything can and does happen in service to the aesthetic whole. All this on the multistranded chamber works written between 1996 and 2016.

Current comes at us like a force of nature, of irregular eddying torrents of wind or water, with clusters and deft collisions of notes and sound colors. All happens via a series of five provocative chamber works and a bonus concluding work for chamber orchestra.

There is a freshening to be heard throughout. None of this is precisely predictable; most of the works are unexpected in their post-Boulezian motility, like particles hitting one another at high speeds in a collider or wafts of coloristic atmosphere formation.

The opening "Inventory" (2006) sets the pace with an excitement generated out of soprano Patricia O'Callighan's pleasing virtuosity and the flowing sureness of the chamber orchestra Slipstream. This is marvelous music, built through a genuinely insightful layering of idiomatic part writing and the effect the totality has in generating movement.

From there it continues fruitfully and vitally. The remaining four works are all distinctive and brilliant. If I only cover what I generally like on these pages, please rest assured I like CDs such as this with a heartiness that is in no way feigned.

So if I might be so bold as to suggest, Faster Still will engage and delight virtually anyone who favors the new and the inventive possibilities still available to our collective musical senses. Brian Current is the real thing and this music makes for essential listening.

Grab this one!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Erik Satie, Complete Piano Works 1, New Salabert Edition, Nicolas Horvath

Anyone who for some reason does not know Erik Satie's piano music has been missing out on a singularly wonderful thing. I've listened for so many years to the bulk of it that it has entered my being as something eternally internal to me. I still have the old LPs of the Frank Glazer Vox Box, the Aldo Ciccolini volumes on Angel/EMI, and lately the Jeroen van Veen CD set on Brilliant (see my review here from last October 6, 2016).

And now we have Nicolas Horvath playing Cosima Wagner's 1881 Erard Grand (the make of piano that Satie favored) for Volume One of the Complete Piano Works in the new corrected Salabert Edition of 2016 in its World Premier recording (Grand Piano 761). The Glazer version is the most middle-of-the-road in its clean depiction of the scores, the Ciccolini is the must sparkling and impressionistic version, the van Veen is the more radically iconoclastic of all of them, featuring very slow, sensuously beautiful versions of the lyric masterworks and adventurous readings of the other works.

And so what of Horvath's new set? Of the Volume One? The Erard gives us a sort of pale, brittle vulnerability to the lyric works, most of which are a part of Volume One. We get Gnossiennes, Gymnopedies, Sarabands, the "Sonneries de la Rose Croix" and other gems both very familiar and less so.

Horvath's interpretations are meant to be faithful to Satie's vision and as such they are not spectacularly slow or fast, not extrovertedly dashing so much as concentrated.

The Salabert Edition corrects the numerous errors that crept into the printed versions of the works, some because Satie did not proofread the printed galleys as carefully as he might, and others for whatever reason. I cannot say that my well-accustomed Satie ears perked up and lead me to a pronounced "wow" at any particular point in my listening, but nonetheless it is always a good thing to get the music closer to what Satie intended.

The wealth of lyric pieces combined into the First Volume along with the sterling interpretations make this an excellent place to start for anyone who does not know Satie well. For the cognoscenti this new set promises to be another offering of finely poetic interpretations that completists or enthusiasts will want to have.

Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Delius, Elgar, String Quartets, Villiers Quartet

Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and Edward Elgar (1857-1934) were contemporaries and peers, yet on the surface had not much in common save their mutual English roots. Elgar in his own way accentuated the classical-romantic heritage and made of it something personal as well as something English, with a certain Victorian propriety that does not necessarily mar his inventiveness as it serves to frame it as of his time. Delius followed a personal path that veered at times closer to impressionism without sounding derivative. And his music was often enough sensuous in ways that Elgar's work generally was not. In that sense Delius seems less tied to his period, though none of it sounds exactly "modern."

The contrasts are clear yet there is a commonality to be heard as well in their String Quartets (Naxos 8.573586). The Villiers Quartet give us considered and very poised versions of the two works. Both were a product of the disruption and cataclysm of WWI. Delius favors an unremittingly pastoral beauty, Elgar a more robust moving on at least in the outer movements.

The Delius Quartet originally took shape as a three movement work in 1916. He subsequently gave a thorough overhaul and created a four movement version in 1917. For the first time in a recording we can hear the opening and "Swallows" movements in the original form, as reassembled by Daniel Grimley in 2016. They follow the final four-movement version on the CD, giving us a rare chance to see Delius's creative process at work. And there is such visceral, sensuous beauty in the Quartet that a differing reprise of the first part of the work serves to prolong the pleasure of its quiet serenity.

The Elgar Quartet that follows is a notable example of the mature composer on a serious side, which by then was mostly how he proceeded in any case. Perhaps what is surprising about the Quartet is how it goes with the Delius. It has more robust outer movements, but there is a lyrical serenity in the slow movement. There is a more overt romanticist sentiment, surely. But the work as a whole is not entirely alien to a pastoral setting.

It is as if each reacted to the waning World War with a kind of reassertion of what true peace meant to them.

The Villiers Quartet bring out the beauty and transcendence of these two pivotal works. I am left after hearing the recording multiple times with a feeling of deep satisfaction with the rightness of both music and performance. So I recommend it to you without hesitation.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Puccini, La Fanciulla del West, Placido Domingo, Zubin Mehta

La Fanciulla del West (Pentatone 5186 243), the Wild West opera by Puccini (1858-1924) is something of an oddity, but for all that an endearing one. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 as a vehicle for tenor giant Caruso, it is not one of Puccini's most popular works (La Boheme, Turandot and Madam Butterfly would qualify for such status, all earlier operas). Yet is in no way inferior from a musical standpoint, and ultimately a bit bizarre. The sight of a bunch of operatic cowboys prancing about in a pronounced Puccinian milieu is slightly jarring. But then, why not? Puccini is himself regardless of the subject matter, and a drama set in the classic American West may be unusual but nonetheless satisfying once one gives it all a chance.

All that is only to affirm that "La Fanciulla" is not an opera entirely within the norms of the late Italian tradition. It demands an excellent performance, surely, in order to affirm its own special blend of subject and operatic style. That is to be had on Pentatone's 2-CD reissue of Mehta conducting the Covent Garden production with Carol Neblett  as Minnie and Placido Domingo as Dick Johnson.

What is perhaps most unusual about the recording is that it was produced in the '70s by Phillips as a quadraphonic release as well as a conventional stereo one. The Super Audio CD enables listeners with compatible equipment to listen to both versions as they were intended to sound on initial release.

I have not tried to listen to the quad version--primarily because I no longer have that option right now. But I do find the stereo version sonically superior and the performance of uniformly appealing dramatic and aesthetic quality. The soloists, chorus and orchestra do a fine job and make an excellent case for the opera.

Puccini enthusiasts will embrace this. Others will find it interesting as a sort of Italy-meets-US-folkways adventure. I am glad to have this version. It is a benchmark standard to me, though I have missed some of the other competing versions as of this juncture. A good bet.

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!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Purcell, Ayres & Songs From Orpheus Brittannicus, Harmonia Sacra & Complete Organ Music, Jill Feldman

Henry Purcell (1650-1695) was one of England's most gifted composers. He had a melodic brilliance and a sense of lyrical form that set him above or at least equal to the greatest of his era. His songs are unforgettable, and then so are his instrumental works. You can hear a very generous sampling of some excellent but not so well know works on Ayres & Songs from Orpheus Brittannicus, Harmonia Sacra & Complete Organ Music (Outhere-Arcanna A430).

Jill Feldman graces the program with her richly ornate and satisfyingly projective soprano voice. I have grown up associating Purcell's songs with the countertenor Alfred Deller thanks to a number of fine recordings I obtained early on. Ms. Feldman brings her own sensibilities to bear on the musical program and after a couple of listens to acclimate, I ended up hearing her interpretations as very right in their own way, quite lovely in fact.

She is joined and in some cases spelled by Nigel North on archlute, Sarah Cunningham on bass viol, and Davitt Moroney on organ. The spare period instrumentation works quite admirably on the vocal works--where lute and viol bring out the accompanymental structural bones

Monday, July 17, 2017

Volti San Francisco, This is What Happened

The choral realm of new music remains a potent idiom when approached creatively. Volti San Francisco gives us a hearing of five contemporary choral works of interest on their CD This is What Happened (Innova 964).

The music covers a spectrum from high modern event worlds to the modern new tonality. Robin Estrada's "Paghahandog" is an example of the former while Stacy Garrop's "Songs of Lowly Life" the latter. From there we are treated to Mark Winges' "Canticles of Rumi," John Muehleisen's " knowing...," and finally Shawn Crouch's "Paradise."

The whole entails a kind of freeze-frame snapshot of where choral music is in the modern present. It is something most certainly worth your time if you seek to follow the new and not just the already enshrined history of the new.

Volti are consummate artists. They deserve your attention.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dalia Raudonikyte With, Solitarius

New music requires new composers, of course. And of those there are no shortages. Virtually every day I find the music of somebody I do not know in front of me. And many of them surprise me in good ways. I am lucky to be alive right now for music. Even if it impoverishes me. What is joy worth? One cannot translate it into monetary terms. So my life is very rich on the level of gratitude, much less so in some other ways. C'est la vie.

Today we have another example: the music of Daliya Raudonikyte With, a she, Norwegian maybe? The recent album of her music, Solitarius (New Focus 186) gives us pause. It is a compendium of some six works, four involving a solo instrument, one a kind of duet, and one a chamber orchestra work.

In each case there is a literary quotation as a springboard--Thomas Wolfe, Picabia, Virginia Woolf, Chopin, Stefan Zweig. What results is distinctive, carefully sonorous music that stays within to reverberate with your being. There is sonic acuity, deliberation, gesture, and a special envelope full of the present.

Expect very appropriate ventures into extended techniques, a contemporary modernism that has more than the norm of invention, often far more. "Grues et Nix," the single orchestral work, has a kind of uncanny opening onto a personal sonic mapping of what Woolfe declaims as "Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night." This work is in its very own way as evocative as something like Ives' "Central Park in the Dark," and without sounding like Ives at that, but equally home-spun, native individual like.

The other works each have a particular personal With touch, whether it be "Solitarius" for clarinet, "Ventus" for alto sax and electronics, "FCH" for piano, "Primo cum lumine solis" for guitar, or "Idem non semper idem" for alto sax. Nothing is tentative, even if nothing seems exactly formal in some scientistic way, and so much the better because With is expression first perhaps, structure second?

In the end it is all of course about the listening experience. With gives us an excellent one while being very much herself.

So I do suggest this one as rewarding, essential in its own way as music of this very second!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

New Music for Clarinet, Another Look, F. Gerard Errante

The clarinet as a virtuoso solo instrument has been an established fact in new music for many years. As if to sum up the current state of the art in such matters, F. Gerard Errante distinguishes himself admirably and spearheads an anthology of provocative contemporary modern chamber works on New Music for Clarinet, Another Look (Ravello 7941). It is a reissue of some excellent performances originally available on LPs in the '70s and '80s on CRI and New World Records.

Errante has agility and remarkable tone control. He can dive artistically into extended techniques and revert to more conventional articulations with ease and grace. Indeed his formidable and imaginative approach seem tailor-made for the works on the program.

They are lively, exciting and varied in the most capable hands of Errante. Especially welcome to me are two compositions by new music-jazz icon clarinetist and composer William O. Smith. His "Solo for Clarinet with Delay System" and "Asana" (the latter making use of the MXR Digital Delay and Pitch Transposer) remind us that he has long established an original voice for himself.

Vladimir Ussachevsky's "Four Studies for Clarinet and EVI" (the latter an electronic keyboard) brings us some classic early modernism from a composer who broke so much ground in modern American new music.

But the music continues into equally interesting areas with exceptional performances of Adolphus Hailstork's "A Simple Caprice," (with Lee Jordon-Anders at the piano), Dana Wilson's "Piece for Clarinet Alone," Errante's own "Souvenirs de Nice," and finally the tumultuously irrepressible "The Dissolution of the Serial," which chaotically and beutifully does exactly that via brilliant performances by William Albright on piano and Errante on tenor sax.

It is a re-release that fully rewards us with a program of all-too-neglected music in remarkable performances. Errante soars and the music does not fail to enchant! Need I say more?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Arvo Part Live, Choral and Orchestral Works, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, The Hilliard Ensemble, Muncher Rundfunkorchester

The Estonian Arvo Part has the distinction of being one of the handful of living composers who is most influential and celebrated throughout the world. If you by chance do not know his music, today's CD would be an excellent place to start. And at any rate it is doubtless an excellent place to aurally dwell  whether you are a devoted follower or a newcomer to his music.

Arvo Part Live (BR Klassik 900319) combines contributions from the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Munchner Rundfunkorchester, under the various direction of Peter Dijkstra, Robert King, Ulf Schirmer and Marcello Viotti.

The performances are culled from various concerts recorded between 2000 and 2011. The selected works covered on the CD are well matched and not entirely what you might expect.

What is most unexpected and welcome is the opening orchestral "Collage Uber B-A-C-H" from his earlier period. There is unabashed modernism to be heard, yet there is no mistaking the Partian sensitivity to time and place that continually marks his ongoing originality. Here the music is based on the B-A-C-H motive but also a transformation of a Saraband from Bach's "English Suite."

Part's period of crisis from 1968-1976  ultimately gave rise to the special "old-in-the-new" style we hear so effectively and performatively in the works that follow on this program. We are treated to competitively enchanting versions of "Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen" for a capella choir, "Cecilia, vergine romana" for choir and orchestra, "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" for string orchestra and bells, and "Litany - Prayers of St John Chrysostom for Each Hour of the Day and Night" for soloists, choir and orchestra.

These works provide the key in microcosm to all that has given us pause and wonder in the special spirituality that is the mature Part for us.

This is a fine collection that everyone should probably hear. Certainly anyone who follows new music today needs to know Part, but then anyone of a general classical bent should also, and, why not, just everyone out there who loves music as well. Confirmed Part appreciators will find in this anthology many reasons to own it, even if you already have versions of some of these works,

A triumphant offering! Listen.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Derek Clarke, In Sonorous Falling Tones, Wired! Ensemble, Mark Hopkins

Canadian composer-flautist Derek Clarke chimes in with four choice compositions featuring the Wired! Ensemble and the composer as flute soloist. We have in this offering exciting, dynamic modern music of a high caliber.

The first, "In Sonorous Falling Tones" is a concerto for flute and bass flute with much going on and an especially bracing part for the flutes. "Lachrymae" is a not unrelated work for solo piccolo.

"What Do the Birds Think?" follows, a post-Darmstadtian thing of great imagination and beauty for chamber ensemble. The music is abstracted and generated out of the key words "remembrance," "nostalgia," "migration," "birdcalls" and "isolated places." Various moods and mysterious, almost unconscious-unveiling sounds create a world that intrigues and fascinates.

"Warning! Gustnadoes Ahead" closes out the program. It is flute centered at times, based on various environmental sounds as processed and represented in instrumental transformations.

The totality of the four compositions mark Derek Clarke as a composer of beautifully crafted importance--and a master flautist of great virtuosity and originality. There is a great deal here to savor.

Definitely recommended!

Monday, July 10, 2017

John Luther Adams, Canticles of the Holy Wind, The Crossing, Donald Nally

By now it is clear that John Luther Adams has created a body of work that represents a pinnacle of development in the post-minimalist tonal ambient realm today. His music consistently gives off a sort of poetic glow that evidences his extraordinary sensitivity and brilliance. He knows what he wants to hear and what that is seems very right.

The latest, a long, mostly a capella choral work that features the remarkable vocal group the Crossing under Donald Nally, is by no means an exception to this trend. Far from it. Canticles of the Holy Wind  (Cantaloupe 21131) delivers a paen to hope, for the resurgence of humanity through her-his place in the natural cosmos of earth and universe. Things on earth have become pretty grim, he is saying, but our ultimate destiny is beyond where we are. The music represents that place we can and should occupy in the creation as it were, as perhaps an integral part rather that an adversary.

Adams makes full us of the sonority of the Crossing, with long sustains, chordal drones, multipart cosmic counterpoint and rhythmic acrobatics by various sections at various times. The latter is underscored by the subtle percussion of Amy Garapic. There is continual movement and growth. And amidst the mostly diatonic beauty and chromatically expansive descending figures, there is a sort of musical narrative that signifies in tones what one might not say easily in words.

The sectional logic has dimensionality and forward thrust. We never feel the lack of change yet all relates organically each to the other.

It is a universe that centers around what voices can give us when imagination and timbral care have an important place for composer and performers alike.

This may not be an absolute John Luther Adams masterpiece, but it is very absorbing and beautiful music that will put the serious listener in a special musical world as very few other composers today can do.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Milica Djordjevic, Deutscher Musikrat, Edition Zeitgenossische Musik

The music of Milica Djordjevic? From the Deutscher Musikrat, Edition Zeitgenossische Musik (Wergo 6422 2) volume now available in the US and Canada,  we have a very kinetic-high modern expanded tonality program of a definite abstract ambiance. Performed by the Arditti Quartet and a distinguished cast of chamber musicians, the seven compositions take us far and wide into avant garde territory. This in the end is music beyond Darmstadt, a determined breaking out into the realm of energy and performativity.

A musically precocious childhood in Belgrade led to an interest in  theatre, painting, physics and in the end composition. Her music reflects biographical elements such as growing up in war-torn Serbia, the challenge of realizing a thoroughly immersive musical composition, the incorporation of failure into the final result, and the search for a wider palette of sound beyond conventional and typical extended techniques for instruments.  She is a complex soul and no brief and glib summary does her justice.

The music has an expressivity that to my ears aligns it as much to European New Music Improv as much as it settles into a concert high modernism. The wealth of content on the CD defies easy description. Suffice to say that there is an impressive depth and breadth to be heard, a fluid eloquence that marks Ms. Djordjevic as a highly talented artist who has embraced the new and found herself an original place within it.

A definite must for those seeking to understand and embrace new high modernist trends.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Erik Satie, Musique d'Entracte, Almost Forgotten Masterpieces, Fumio Yasuda

If musical life is sometimes like being an outfielder in baseball, where you have to "call" and catch every somewhat ambiguous fly ball, so too I field every review on these blogs and hope there are no sudden gusts of wind or dazzles of sunlight that would confuse my tracking of the ball and its trajectory. There seems no difficulty for me in fielding the album before me, Erik Satie and Musique d'Entracte, Almost Forgotten Masterpieces (Music Edition Winter & Winter 910 241-2). I love Satie deeply and so I am predisposed toward the volume, in that my expectations were high.

No disappoinment here, happily. What we have is a nicely judicious selection of more-or-less lesser-known Satie miniatures arranged for piano and prepared piano (Furnio Yasuda), clarinet-bass clarinet-saxophone (Joachim Badenhorst), and cello-voice (Julie Laderach).

The 13 short works in the anthology include "Cinema," which Satie wrote for the film Entre-Acte. Then there's "Dance of the Man and the Woman" from Relache, a brief, quietly articulated prepared-piano centric version of  "Vexations" and a smart peppering of other short works, many originally conceived for solo piano but given very sympathetic treatment by the trio. They aren't afraid to introduce a smattering of free improv or jazz-type solos now and again, add some Bill Evans-like rubatos or otherwise treat the ever-varied, brilliant works to more adventurous touches than one might expect.

Once the music is over, you might like me want to play the whole thing again right then and there. It is a worhwhile approach to some of Satie's most advanced, quirky and/or lyrical masterworks.The glowing re-creations help remind us how timeless his music can be. Most of this might have been written yesterday. Yet of course it was not. Yasuda and trio bring it all alive for us, beautifully.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Desyatnikov, Sketches to Sunset, Russian Seasons

The music of Destyatnikov has imagination, warmth and modern tonal folk fire. At least that is what I feel when listening to the two-work CD Sketches to Sunset / Russian Seasons (Quartz 2122).

"Russian Seasons" (2000) is divided into 12 vignettes for violin (Roman Mints), voice (Yana Ivanilova) and chamber orchestra (Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under Philipp Chizhevsky). It was written for Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, who gave it the first performance. Lake District Russian folk themes form the basis of the music. There are some moments that have a genetic affinity with the neo-classic-folk period of Stravinsky, especially in its modular rhythmic liveliness and thematic organicism. But then you discover an overall originality that transcends influence yet remains very much Russian. It is a work that captivates and enchants in the most worthy ways.

"Sketches to Sunset" (1992), in first recording for Mints, Alexey Goribal and the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra under Chizhevsky, kicks off with a rhapsodic mysterioso folk-laced theme for violin and orchestra. It is segued to a Russianesque quasi-Jewish sounding tango theme based on "Death in Venice." Onward it goes from there, touching down poignantly on various memorable moods and modes. The sunset has an almost sultry air to it in Destyanikov's hands, yet there is regret and a biblical underpinning ("Absolom's Death") that feels ultimately Russian-Jewish in fascinating ways. The music is based on the Desyanikov's score to the film "Sunset" which takes place in Odessa before the revolution. A primal sort of experience of the haze of time seems palpable in the thematic sequencing. One is left holding the air of the present as the spell the music casts comes to a close.

The two works stand out as very characterful, strongly tonal and giving off with originally transformative pre-modern and post-modern elements.

Any Russophile will respond well to this music I would think. Desyatnikov has an inimitably tabula rasa way, yet there is strong tradition paradoxically present, too. A definite joy to immerse oneself in!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford, Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 1, Christopher Howell

The world of Charles Villiers Stanford (1857-1924) I'll admit is not very familiar to me. He was as big a name composer in his day in Great Britain as virtually anyone. Yet his music is not so well known today. I was surprised at a release of his choral music a while ago (type his name in the search box) and favorably reviewed it. His music was much more engaging than I had imagined it would be.

And now we get to hear his Complete Works for Piano in the 2-CD first installment, Vol. 1 (Sheva Collection 115) as aptly performed by Christopher Howell. There is plenty to like on the first go-round. We are exposed to "Six Waltzes," "Three Waltzes," "Six Characteristic Pieces," "Five Caprices," two sets of "Six Sketches," "Three Fancies," "Five Irish Folk-tunes," and "Twenty-Four Preludes in all the keys." A number of the works are in first recordings.

These are well-constructed pieces, surprisingly post-romantic. They eschew virtuoso technique and flashiness, ending up something like a British Chabrier, with the emphasis on invention and straightforward directness. These are not works of a modernist sort, of course. But they do precurse composers like Vaughan-Williams and Holst. They are not stuffy nor typically Victorian. He shows a kind of affability and tunefulness I was not at all expecting to hear.

I must say I did not anticipate hearing disarmingly charming music of this kind from Stanford. Anyone who wants a wealth of unpretentious pianistics would do well to hear this, as would any Anglophile. It is very much a pleasure to hear. I will be covering Vols. Two and Three in a while, so stay tuned.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Roadshow, Music of Carl Schimmel

Carl Schimmel comes across as an almost wayward iconoclast on the recent CD RoADSHoW (New Focus 167). The music has an element of circus whimsy meets modern chamber seriousness, especially on the flute-cello-clarinet-piano work "RoADSHoW for OTTo" (2010/2012) and "RoADSHoW FoR THoRA" (2015), for clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

The song cycle "FoUR NoCTURNES FRoM 'THE OBLIVIoN HA HA'" ((2010) has a rather soberly expressive contemporary post-serial demeanor, punctuated by the burnished vocal quality of  mezzo-soprano Lucy Shelton and the carefully drawn parts for the quintet of instrumentalists known as the DaCapo Players.

"String Quartet #2 'Six Faces'" (2010) begins with a dense thicket of strings, which metamorphoses into quietly expressive worlds and contrasting moods inspired in its six movements by six varied paintings. The music in the composer's vision is like a six-sided cube, a single woman in six different faces or identities. It is a very dramatic, modernistically complex work that shows the hand of a master chamber craftsman at his finest.

"THE PISMERIST'S CONGERIES" (2005) takes flute-violin-cello-piano form with nine movements, each musically describing an object in the collection of a pismerist (a collector of small or insignificant things). The character pieces/sketches have a playful quality and bring the program to a satisfying close.

Schimmel gives us equal doses of whimsy, mathematical-musical rigor and expressive power in this collection of works. He goes his own way to a happy result. Anyone with a modern-oriented set of ears will do well to check this music out.

Villa-Lobos, Symphonies Nos. 8, 9 and 11, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Isaac Karabtchevsky

It does not matter how far along I go in life. It seems like every so often there is more excellent Villa-Lobos to discover. Naxos has been doing a good deal lately to underscore how his entire oeuvre has much to recommend it.  That is the case once again in the latest release from the Villa-Lobos symphony cycle, the Symphonies 8, 9 and 11 (Naxos 8.573777) as played with great capability and verve by the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Isaac Karabtchevsky.

They are a product of Villa-Lobos' later period, having been written between 1950 and 1955. They have that distinctive meld of rhapsodic modernism and Villa-Lobos' own take on Brazilian influences. In the case of the latter there is less of a direct line to a national strain and more of a haunting. Everything he did had some relationship to his rich Brazilian heritage but then in this case there is less a conscious effort of incorporation so much as a natural predilection that gets harnessed to a symphonic classical-modern identity. The years in the United States had no doubt an influence on the widening of his musical view, but in any event it reflected a natural growth and a continued opening of his expressive needs.
By this time Villa-Lobos had fully mastered the modern orchestra as a personal extension of his musical personality, so much so that you could recognize him by hearing only a few bars of a work. These three symphonies give us a generous helping of the composer at this juncture. All of them are substantial and very worth hearing. Perhaps the 11th has the most gravity, but then the 8th and 9th have the most buoyancy.

None of these symphonies are inconsequential. Far from it. They are manna for the Villa-Lobos enthusiast and a deep plunge into the later world of his approach even if you are not fully conversant with his total span of expression. Karabtchevsky and the Sao Paulo Orchestra breathe a good deal of plein air into the scores.

An excellent addition to anyone's Villa-Lobos holdings! Very recommended.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Louis Couperin, Suites st Pavane, Skip Sempe

When I was listening the other day to Louis Couperin's Suites et Pavane (Alpha Classics 333) as recorded by harpsichordist Skip Sempe my partner perked up her ears and commented, "That's nice. Who is it? Sounds like Bach!" And I tried to explain it all succinctly. "Well, maybe the Bach of the English and French Suites. Otherwise, not so much. The fugal Bach was about the architecture and perfection of God's creation; Louis and Francois Couperin and the French Baroque were more about the human in the world with all her or his feelings and frailties. They were closer to a kind of Romanticism; Bach was raising great edifices of form."

And she understood. Neither schools are in the end exactly comparable. There is a sweetness to Couperin and Rameau where Bach was a master builder who incorporates feelings but more internal, more embedded in each structural whole. So it seems to me.

This recording of Couperin by Skip Sempe is close to ideal. The six "Suite de Pieces" and the "Pavane" are played with a poetic rubato that is just enough to heighten expression without going to distorted extremes. That sweet quality is brought to the forefront and gives us as cogent an argument for Louis Couperin's brilliance as any I've heard.

Each of the Suites and the Pavane relate to one another as equals. They are spiritually related as are siblings of the same family. They share traits but in the end differ enough one to the other to be readily distinguished.

Each goes its way memorably and elegantly and then makes way for the next. There is beauty maybe more so than truth, but neither are they pretty lies, flattering baubles of a superficial veneer. Rather, they do run deep in spite of their exuberant charm and poignant melancholy.

Sempe's dedication to a vibrant and meditative realization underscores the universality of this music and its continued relevance to the thinking and feeling music lover.

The whole program ravishes. Truly, this will if you let it be a faithful companion to your musico-reflective self, always able to weave its spell on your being whenever you put it on and give it your attention.

An excellent addition to your collection!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Juri Seo, Mostly Piano

Juri Seo is a composer-pianist who resides in my state of the States, New Jersey. Some of her music stands out on the recent release Mostly Piano (Innova 968). As the title suggests, this is...mostly works for piano. But not just any works.

For Ms. Seo has her own way, tonal--and the examples "#Three" (for piano and percussion), "Three Mini-Etudes in C" and parts of "Piano Sonata No.1 - 'La Hammerklavier'" show a rhythmic vitality bursting at the seams with dynamic tension and personal form. The sonata has a lyrical-classical aspect that glances backward as it forges ahead into something unique to the composer.

The "Etudes for Cimbalom" cover much ground in six movements. Folk dance elements and contrasts, energetic dynamics and contemplative counterthrusts intermingle for some exhilarating fireworks.

The final piece, a solo piano and percussion piece entitled "vi" (2010) marked her inaugural return to tonality, in this case triads and seventh chords contrasting bitonal ambiguity with tonal clarity. There is as with the other works a somewhat startling freshness about the music.

So that is what I experience from this album, telegraphed in necessarily sketchy ways to fit the here and gone format of the everyday blog pages. There would be a great deal more to say were I to concentrate for the rest of the day on why this music is special. For the spinning world we are in I must simply iterate that Juri Seo is a modern original, and that her music on the current volume veers into breathtaking territory at times, and for all that never seems content to work inside the usual trends that occupy much of the contemporary music world.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Eclipse, Chamber Music By Mischa Zupko

Mischa Zupko writes with a modernist flourish music that sometimes has a lyrical underpinning, while always to my ears blossoms forth with a personal fluidity in his insightful musical-dialectical discourse. The Zupko anthology Eclipse (Cedille 90000 168) features chamber music for piano (Zupko), violin (Sang Mee Lee), and cello (Wendy Warner).

Each work has literal thematic content. "Rising" (for violin and piano) is all about meditations on the ascension of Jesus. "Fallen" (for cello and piano) is based on a Garcia-Lorca poem about the suicide of a young man of promise who has fallen into despair."From Twilight" (for solo violin) comes out of the experience of observing the evening sky as the curtain of night gradually descends. "Eclipse" (for violin and cello) encapsules the feeling of serenity as an evolving eclipse condition is made into music via the overlapping and mingling of motives for the violin and cello. "Nebula" (for solo cello) pits the cello against silence as we are exposed to parts of a wide overarching arc of musical content.

From there we go to "Shades of Grey" for violin and piano, in four movements, realizing in musical terms the marriage preparations of Winston Choi and Minghuan Xu, otherwise known as Duo Diorama, for whom the work was written.

"Love Obsession" (for cello, piano and six prerecorded cello tracks) is the dramatic finale. It deals with the relentless pursuit of a love object by a determined subject. Highly rhythmic figures portray the manic chase of passionate absorption, ending in some sort of quietly realized fulfillment.

There is no simple description of how this music plays itself out. Every work is a world unto itself. Zupko is musically multilingual in the way he adapts a spectrum of tonal possibilities and spins his own original form and content for each.

The trio of musicians each brings an enormous absorption and focus to the music, making it sing, bringing its reflective and reflexive brilliance to bear on our experiencing ears.

Zupko has a musical mind both open and exceptionally inventive, certainly as exemplified by the works on this album. He is like a fine wine. He is best savored, allowed to breathe. You need to open yourself up, to permit his many faceted music to resonate against your listening sensibilities in a state of centered concentration,  Like a complex wine at a peak of maturation, the long finish you experience is just as you might have hoped, in the end satisfying and total in its effect.

I have no hesitations in recommending this music to you.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rachmaninov, Rare Piano Transcriptions, Julia Severus, Piano

Yesterday, I spoke a little about how the romantic piano practice of rubato cascading became more harmonically daring in the hands of Scriabin and ended up further extended by a composer like Roslavets, but that by last mid-century modernist pianism had all but jettisoned the stylistic parameters which found its most eloquent practitioner in Liszt.

What such a scenario ignores is the figure of Rachmaninov. (Early Prokofiev aside, who was already very much more the modernist.) Like at least on the surface we think of Bach and his attention to fugal form even if in his later years it was no longer au courant. So Rachmaninov espoused the rolling romantic rubato when many of his compatriots had moved on. I would not want to suggest that Rachmaninov reached the sublime heights of Bach in his anachronistic endeavors. That is no doubt unfair. How many composers would you put alongside Bach in any way? Very few.

Rachmaninov (1873-1943) stayed stylistically where he began, for the most part. Of course he excelled in lyric effusions and left us with some beautiful piano music that transcends time in the best ways.

For those like me who cannot get enough Rachmaninov piano works, there are today a batch of them that you no doubt have never heard, at least not like this. I speak of the recent CD of Piano Transcriptions (Naxos 8.573468). On it is Rachmaninov's transcription of the  "Suite in D minor," which was discovered only in 2002, along with a transcription of the Intermezzo from Aleko, plus 21 of his songs, transcribed for solo piano by Rachmaninov and six other composers, including the pianist on this collective program, Julia Severus.

She is most definitely in her element with this music. A more sensitively romantic but never overly gushing exponent of this rare music would be hard to find.

Many of these pieces, indeed most are in first recordings. The songs in their original form contained involved piano parts, so that the transcriptions carry over the extraordinary pianism and integrate it fully into the solo realm.

Perhaps not everything to be heard on the program is an absolute masterpiece, but then some come close. For those for whom the Rachmaninovian path is one you long to linger on, this small fork into more vistas will doubtless delight you.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Roslavets, Complete Works for Solo Piano, Olga Andryushchenko

Nicolay Andreyevich Roslavets (1881-1944) is currently at best a footnote in the history of Russian 20th century modernism. Yet Stravinsky at one point called him "the most interesting Russian composer of the 20th century." Now there is a chance to explore his work in depth on the recent 2-CD set Complete Works for Solo Piano (Grand Piano 743-44).

Olga Andryushchenko does the duties as the pianist throughout. Her fluid readings seem expressively right for the music. Roslavets was a victim of Soviet disapproval and so never got a lot of exposure or recognition. This complete piano set includes a good deal of undiscovered and reconstructed works that see the light of day here for the first time. Many are first recordings. It is much more involved than one has a right to expect from a long-unknown. There is a kind of pristine coming-into-being to be heard with great profit if you give the music a chance.

The music is programmed to follow roughly a chronological order. The first period of his music, say 1914 through 1916, finds the composer in a rather Scriabinesque mode. From around 1917 through 1923, the influence remains in terms of a poetic rubato, yet further modernizes in terms of an idiosyncratic tonal ambiguity and the use of what Roslavets called "synthetic chords."

To get the maximum out of Roslavets, you need to cast away expectations and let the music itself work its way into your listening mind. It is something a Scriabin enthusiast (such as myself) will see as a further step into a modernism that mostly dead-ended but in the hands of Roslavets convinces and holds its own even though the vibrant currents of modernism by mid-century had largely jettisoned the cascading rubatos that Roslavets embodies in his very own way.

Why the Soviet Union party censors should see this music as objectionable need not detain us much. Clearly they found any kind of formalism, or any kind of autonomous musical striving counter-revolutionary. All must be an arm of propaganda. Sometimes composers were able to satisfy the dictates of social realism or circumvent them and still make great music and keep on. Roslavets could not find a way and more's the pity.

At least with this two-CD set we are treated to some exceptional music that deserves our respect and admiration. I find the music much to my liking. It has a brilliance of its own and that mysterious cosmic quality that Scriabin pioneered. But it stands or falls as Roslavets. It stands.

Recommended for Russophile modernists and anyone interested in the trajectory of modern solo piano, surely.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Stewart Goodyear, Ravel, Piano Music

Some composers and compositions have formed such a seminal part of my life experience that they have become important residents of my "permanent" musical mind. The piano music of Ravel (Orchid Classics 100061) qualifies in very absolute ways. When particular works enter into my imaginary shrine of eternal verities, they usually do so in terms of my memory of specific performances that I either first heard at a younger age or versions that I have since come across that somehow have redefined my vision of what the music is about.

For Ravel's solo opus I fell upon Samson Francois's 3-LP set on Seraphim many years ago and it has ended up as a benchmark standard for comparison. The versions are not in any way flashy but carve out each musical statement with a care and a fidelity that seem close to what the composer himself heard. I have not had time to audition any of the other complete opus recordings, though I've experienced enough Gieseking Ravel that I imagine his set would be ravishing. A real ear-opener was the old Everest Archive of Piano release of Ravel playing his own music on the touch sensitive player piano that was state-of-the-art in his day. The piano roll transcription of "La vallee des cloches" from Miroirs was one of those revelations you can get when you hear the composer's own version of something for the first time. It is the opposite of a virtuoso approach, slow, brooding, atmospheric, lingering over every note so that the "Valley of Bells" as just that came through like never before for me.

With all of the above as a prologue. . .  I was interested to receive pianist Stewart Goodyear's Ravel, a single CD compendium of some of Ravel's most beautiful pieces. Goodyear has fabulous technique which he puts to brilliant use on movements that can be taken much faster than the norm, so that a shimmer of pulsatingly ecstatic passagework transforms the music to something excitingly other at times.

Yet when appropriate Goodyear can dig into the pastoral and/or reflective sort of lyricism that "Le vallee des cloches" or "Pavane pour un infante defunte" demands.

We are treated to the sort of dual polar readings he excels in--with the music of "Jeux d'eau," "Sonatine," "Miroirs," "Gaspard de la nuit," and the "Pavane."

In the end Goodyear brings an exceptional beauty and sparkling dazzle to these works that is nothing short of extraordinary. I still cling to the Francois and Ravel LPs as a sort of bedrock given for these works, yet I find Goodyear opens other vistas for me, other ways to hear much of this music. Anyone who already loves these pieces as I do will find in the Goodyear spirit a new take on it all. It is tour de force pianism, sometimes incredibly exciting.

Recommended with no reservations whatsoever!