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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!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bernard Rands, Vincent, Arthur Fagen, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus

I suppose it had to happen eventually. That is, an opera based on the life of Van Gogh. It took until 2011, when composer Bernard Rands completed the two-act Vincent (Naxos 8.669037-38), now available as a two-CD recording by soloists and the Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus under Arthur Fagen. It is a sometimes lyrical, sometimes agitated or otherwise dramatic recounting of Van Gogh's life in essence, from his disastrous experience as a salesman in an art gallery, his struggles to find his style, his closeness to brother Theo, the Arles triumphs and anguish, the fight with Gauguin and Vincent's breakdown and death.

All is handled with taste and appealing musical values, a healthy dash of modernism a la post-Wozzeck and a sure theatrical flair. I will confess that the idea of an opera rehashing the tragic life of the brilliant painter did not on first blush appeal to me. His life story has entered the pop-folk vernacular of the misunderstood artistic genius and in some ways given us a romantic myth that may provide a cautionary tale of how one can never be sure of talent when a great one could possibly be living among us, but otherwise perhaps justifies a kind of collective shrug of the shoulders when it comes to modernism and its supposed inscrutability.

Nonetheless I have immersed myself in the work and come out with a positive feeling about it. It is constructed with the sort of event arc conducive to gaining an absorbed audience attention. And in the end J. D. McClatchy's libretto meshes with the well-wrought score to maintain and grow the dynamic tension necessary to experience the life story and its very sad yet triumphant end points. There are brilliant moments that musically match the anguish of the main character.

Arthur Fagen, the effective soloists and the amassed Indiana University singers and musicians all give us a convincing and intense reading of the score.

This is a good one for you who want to keep abreast of developments in modern opera today.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Vitezslav Novak, In the Tatra Mountains, Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra can be counted on to do justice to late-romantic, proto-impressionist scores. And so they do us a real service handling the ins and outs of composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) and his In the Tatra Mountains (Naxos 8.573683).

As can be heard in this three-work program, Novak was a Bohemian Nationalist who constructed vast panoramas that perhaps owed something to Dvorak but took the music into the 20th century in his own way.

The three works open Novak's musical world with a maturity and a sense of motion and tone color painting that mark him as talented and eloquent.  You can hear echoes of Bohemian folk music but indirectly for the most part, as if reflected by distance and wide spaces in woodlands or mountains.

Each of the three have character and very worthy orchestrations. They seem descriptive but well beyond a literal program. And so as we immerse ourselves in the title work "In the Tatra Mountains" (1902), and the following pieces, "Lady Godiva - Overture" (1907) and "Eternal Longing" (1905). We linger in expressively evocative worlds, now pastoral, now in a terrain of inner feelings and passions, always with a sense of proportion and contrast.

Novak may be pretty well forgotten to most of us, but Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic give us very musical reasons to revel in his rediscovery. The three works give us much substance and pleasure. And so there is a good deal to appreciate on this disk.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Bach, The Art of Fugue, Stephanie & Saar

Johann Sebastian Bach's  1748 The Art of Fugue (New Focus Recordings FCR 181, 2-CDs) is one of a handful of his most sublime works. He composed it in his final years, a part here and there unfinished, never specifying the instrumentation or tempo, yet giving us a soaring set of 14 fugues and 4 canons based on a single theme. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the cannon of great works. I've had various versions of it throughout my lifetime. The mostly single piano four-hand version by DUO Stephanie & Saar rivals and possibly surpasses them all,

Why? The utter seriousness of the music, its incredible power is given to us undiluted, aesthetically sound yet not overly florid, tempos seeming just right, now lingering and contemplative, now expressing great depth of feeling and strength. The notes themselves are the central focus, with enough interpretive feeling but never too much. The parts are articulated with a clarity of purpose so that we continually hear the equal unfolding of fugal voices, never missing the contrapuntal whole that is so critical for a full understanding of this masterpiece.

The fugal Bach surpasses its times to speak across all time. Indeed the "Art" is within that select grouping as perhaps the highest of expressions of Bach's razor-sharp otherworldliness. Words cannot begin to do justice to the music.

All I can do is point you towards this version. Your ears will do the rest. Let your mind boggle!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

44 Waltzes on 88 Keys, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Ravel, Peter Schaaf

When you do not know what you want to listen to, you may want to hear pianist Peter Schaaf's 44 Waltzes on 88 Keys (Schaaf Records 102). That may sound facetious but I am quite serious.  It is what the title suggest, waltzes. Little miniaturist gems both familiar and not, by the likes of Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak and Ravel. Everybody will doubtless know the Ravel, much fewer the Dvorak, but all have a special something that takes the music well beyond the salon per se (we do not have salons anymore regardless) and into the realm of pure music (which thankfully many of us still need and demand).

An important key to it all is Peter Schaaf. Most of the waltzes have a periodicity and symmetry that have generally been expected of the form over the years. Excepting Ravel's "Valses nobles et sentimentales" they have brilliance but also a dominant regularity of waltz form. They give a world-class pianist an interpretive set of possibilities that includes rubato, dynamic variations, subtle articulations, varied attacks and whatever else seems fitting to the artist in his or her vision of what a performance might sound like. Of course a supremely endowed pianist may make a love-fest of pretentious over performativity out of works like this, if "taste" is not sufficiently present.

Peter Schaaf has the ability to keep the musical content foremost while engaging in convincing interpretive readings. The Ravel, most inviting to the interpretive arts, has a subtle beauty in Schaaf's hands. Like the more straightforward waltz pieces in this delightful program, the readings wear well and bring to the forefront the brilliance of the composers involved.

Schaaf makes of it all a great pianistic outing. I do not fail to respond to this program, no matter what mood I may be in, and I have been in definite moods lately so I am confident in my reactions.

44 Waltzes is a kind of triumph of musicality. I heartily recommend it! Schaaf makes the experience a true pleasure.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Akoka: Reframing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz & Friends

Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" is without question one of the masterpieces of modern chamber music. Once you hear it a few times, it takes its place inside your musical mind and stays there. It expresses in sorrow and transcendence the horror of Nazi Europe and its evil promise. No wonder, Messiaen wrote it as an inmate in a concentration-work camp, for performance by himself and fellow musicians to play as an act of musical defiance in the face of despair. Never has such bitter sorrow led to such music!

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (Pentatone Oxingale 5186 560) is as it says, a new recording of  the Quartet  as the centerpiece of an extended performance which sandwiches the work in between David Krakauer's "Akoka" and socalled's "Meanwhile".
The latter is an ultra-contemporary coda to the work, a sort of remix of the Quartet; "Akoka" is dedicated to the original clarinetist in the first performance, one Henri Akoka. It is a structured improvisation based on Krakauer's template.

The bookend performances give us a current-day framing and affirm that Messiaen's music of protest remains completely relevant to our times, as we feel the shadow of evil making itself felt again all over the world.

This performance of the Quartet is up there with the best. David Krakauer, clarinet, Matt Haimovitz, cello, Jonathan Crew, violin, and Geoffrey Burleson, piano, give us a very thoughtful and spirited reading. The bookend pieces serve to situate and extend the impact of the music and do so in interesting ways. All in all this may well be the version you should get if you have none to date. It is essential music, as fresh as ever, as movingly personal as it is universal.

Paul Lustig Dunkel, Alive in the Studio

Extraordinary flute master Paul Lustig Dunkel appears before us at the peak of his powers on the recital recording Alive in the Studio (MSR Classics 1554). On it Peter Basquin provides sensitive and appropriate accompaniment as needed. Laura Conwesser, Rie Schmidt and Tanya Witek flesh out the flute quartet on Dunkel's "Quatre Visions Pour Quatre Flutistes." Tony Moreno gives us the percussion-drum part on his "Episodes for Flute and Percussion."

Those are the bare-bones basics. It is the flute of Dunkel and its fine tonal presence and virtuosity that carries the day in the end. He is a well healed flautistic spectre on Dunkel's arrangement of Shostakovich's "Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor Op. 40." The work sounds completely natural and poignant in the flute substitution of the cello part.

Dunkel's own "Quatre Visions Pour Quatre Flutistes" (2014) has a dynamic and very idiomatic fullness and inventiveness about it. The four-fold flute family sonority is a joy to hear.

The rest is worthy as well. It all ends up as a model of what a world-class flautist can do. Bravo!


Monday, June 12, 2017

Sergio Cervetti, Triptych Revelation

Sergio Cervetti's music is in the process of being well documented by Navona Records. (I've covered a number of them. Type his name in the search box above for those reviews.) The latest release, Triptych Revelation (Navona 6099), is an especially good one. It covers three most interesting and provocative modern works from three different periods of his career, the "Concerto for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani" (1973), the "Piano Quintet - Toward the Abyss" (2015) and "The Hay Wain" for virtual orchestra (1987).

Each of the three shows a pronounced quality of its own. Taken together there is a kind of revelation about his music.

"The Hay Wain" is a response to Hieronymus Bosch's painting, with synths and such forming a thick wash filled with narrative mystery. It has all the complexities of Cervetti's acoustic orchestral music and a convincing orchestration of the battery of sound module tracks as well.

The Piano Quintet is a musical realization of Le Voyage from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. It is an intricate modernist work worthy of Cervetti at his very best.

The "Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani" makes classic use of the instrumentation and its ceremonial fanfarish possibilities, perhaps reminding slightly of Lully but of course all Cervetti.

And so there we have it. This is music of our current modern age, not afraid of tonality but not trying to resurrect a movement backwards, either. And the expansive possibilities of high modernism are never wholly absent (hear the Quintet!). It is an excellent listen.

Very recommended.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Raats, Complete Piano Sonatas 1, Nicolas Horvath

Oh, the things we will hear once we open our ears! There is so much out there. There is Jaan Raats (b. 1932) a name as unknown to me as the umlauts in his name (that my current writing program cannot produce). The World Premiere recordings of his Complete Piano Sonatas 1 (Grand Piano 765) as deftly handled by pianist Nicolas Horvath is something of an event, The music has a dash and panache that is as revelatory as it is appealing,

This first volume gives us sonatas 1-4 and 9-10; the first three hail from 1959, No. 4 from 1969, No. 9 from 1985, rev. 2014 and No. 10 from 2000, rev. 2014.

His is a very motile, dynamic modernism that takes maximum advantage of the percussive nature of the instrument.

The music is not quite like anything else. The long span between the first and tenth sonatas does not at first listen show a huge stylistic change, there is a pronounced Raats-like quality to all of them. But that pronounced originality is the constant thread that makes the entire program stand out as special.

Jaan Raats has found a way to be modern without being what one might expect. That is something to appreciate. Explore this music and find another musical world awaiting!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Alvin Lucier, Two Circles, Alter Ego

The avant garde new music world in the '60s and beyond in the USA? The world has not caught up yet, except of course for those intrepid listeners who have made a point of immersing themselves in its explorations and exceptionality. One can draw connecting lines between the American and European scenes of course, and what has taken place in Japan. In the end though there have been as many differences as convergences.

The all pervasive influence of John Cage has been decisive here. His liberation of noise and silence, the use of chance and indeterminacy, and the overall nonconformist and Zen obstinacy has left a mark on those who came in his wake.

Alvin Lucier (b. 1931) has been one of the more controversial and innovative of the post-Cagean 20th century group. Two Circles is a recent anthology of  Lucier chamber works for instruments, electroacoustics and voice. The chamber ensemble Alter Ego  brings to the music great care and understanding. The works cover a broad swath of time from 1968 through 2012.

The earlier work, I Am Sitting in a Room (1968) has the uncanny meta-part for Lucier's voice, remade now so that his voice shows a golden ripening. It is a simple statement of what the project is meant to do, and then its repetition, each time played back into the room so that Lucier's voice becomes an acoustic transformation that gradually takes on the room's acoustic resonance and in the end becomes that room.

His instrumental works represented in this album have to do with tunings and microscopically contrasting alternate tunings that beat against one another, and the making present of the acoustic properties of the space in which the music sounds.

There is more to it than that of course. And there is a science-like rigor to it that in the end brings enlightenment to the hearer. There are a times an almost clinical quality that may at first be off-putting. But ultimately the music stands or falls as music. Lucier's music can be difficult and challenging. These works are most certainly that. Yet careful, repeated listens take you on a journey through a microscopic universe that has all the qualities of aesthetic experience but brings us there in ways more radically contemplative than we may be used to.

Two Circles serves as a worthy introduction to Lucier. It adds to our appreciation of his music if we already are familiar. This is certainly not in the realm of entertainment. For those willing to take the music as seriously as Lucier intends it to be it is revelatory.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Piotr Szewczyk, Bliss Point, Selected Chamber Works

How many excellent composers active today do you not know? Of course the answer for all of us is that we cannot know how many unknowns there are unless we already know them. One I am glad to know is Piotr Szewczyk. His album of Selected Chamber Works, Bliss Point (Navona 6093), brings to our ears some nine provocative examples of his art.

The violinist and composer is Polish-born, which explains the hard-to-spell name. The music does not sound so much Polish as modern-international in scope. There is a great rhythmic vitality and kinetic energy in this music.The modernistic thematic-harmonic bedrock of the music is in no sense vitiated by its rhythmic core. The whole gestalt of the music enchants and speaks with a specially singular voice that makes it all stand out.

Nine works in all, each with an instrumentation that seems wholly appropriate to the piece at hand. The combinations and permutations are considerable--oboe, violin, cello and piano; violin and viola; piano trio; string quartet; flute, clarinet, cello and piano; string trio; violin and piano; two violins; and violin, clarinet, cello and piano. Each has considerable individuality. Each is performed with zest and sympathetic understanding.

This one is memorable! Viva Piotr Szewczyk.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Messiaen, Meditations sur le Mystere de la Sainte Trinity, Colin Andrews

Messiaen's Meditations sur le mystere de la sainte trinite (Loft 1150) is one of the monumental organ works of our day. Messiaen completed it in 1969. It started in 1967 as four improvisations in celebration of the rebuilding of the organ at Sainte Trinite as well as the 100th anniversary of the cathedral's existence. The work grew and blossomed until it reached its final form. Birdcalls, plainchant, and Greek and Indian rhythmic patterns all are incorporated into the work, as was the case in varying degrees in his later period.

Of all of Messiaen's organ opuses of the later days this one is as complex and monumentally titanic as any. Organist Colin Andrews comes through with a reading that underscores the complexities but also draws coherently the outline shape of the ongoing structural essences. That is only to say that in his hands there is great sympathy and understanding for the work and its fullness.

The Meditations are essential listening--both as some of the most advanced modern organ music ever written and as a milestone of the composer's later evolution. This version rivals any others I have heard. Get it without hesitation.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry, L'epreuve villageoise, Opera Lafayette

If the French school of baroque-classical music has put you under a spell, you will be happy with Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry (1741-1813) and his most popular work, the comic opera L'epreuve villageoise (The Village Trial) (Naxos 8.660377). The 1784 opera gets, surprisingly, its World Premiere Recording with this release, under the very capable and enthusiastic auspices of Opera Lafayette and soloists under Ryan Brown.

In truth this is a great example of how the best of the French school can be lighter than air, extraordinarily tuneful yet in no way insubstantial. A listen or two illuminates exactly how the opera delighted audiences the world over in the century between 1784-1884. It still has the power to charm, as Opera Lafayette show so convincingly.

Here is an opera that has the catchy accessibility of Rossini, yet a French lyrical dynamic at its core.

It is a beauty. And it has the Naxos price and quality. Take the jump if you want to explore a forgotten gem.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Ralph Samuelson, Shakuhachi, The Universal Flute

The venerable art of Japanese Shakuhachi flute goes back some ways, to a sect of Zen monks in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today we contemplate a Western player of great finesse performing a program of contemporary, mostly American compositions on The Universal Flute (Innova 942).

We are treated to five compositions, each combining deftly the traditional Shakuhachi tonality and technique with some new music twists. Ralph is either unaccompanied or joined by idiomatic ensemble elements: koto, kugo harp, vocals, shamisen, and bansuri. As in the traditional art there is the use of space and special attention to each note to get a cosmic sort of suchness that is part of the aura surrounding the shakuhachi. This explains the album's subtitle "Discovery in a Single Tone."

We experience two versions of Henry Cowell's "The Universal Flute," one for unaccompanied flute and the other with bansuri accompaniment. Then follow Teizo Matsumara's "Shikyoku Ichiban" with shakuhachi and koto, Richard Teitelbaum's "Hi Kaeshi Hachi Mi Fu," Bun-Ching Lam's "Three Songs of Shide" with kugo harp, and Elizabeth Brown's "Afterimage" with shamisen and vocals.

This is music of depth, something that will appeal to all who know the shakuhachi tradition as well as those seeking ambient meditative moods. Samuelson is a true artist of the instrument and the music has much about it to explore and discover.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

J. S. Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Arranged for Solo Guitar, Francesco Teopini

The smaller ensemble world of Johann Sebastian Bach seems to me as I grow older ever more timeless, whether it be the unaccompanied cello pieces, the keyboard works or the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, The latter we consider today in their version for solo guitar (Brilliant Classics 2CD 95424). Francesco Teopini does the honors on the nylon stringed classical instrument. The results are alternately introspective and lively, and always rather brightly insightful.

Teopini gives us warm, feelingful readings, nicely idiomatic interpretations that have a glow of sincerity, ringingly clear and expressive.

The three Sonatas and partitas come to us with loving care and an immanent presence on the guitar. It is as if we are hearing these pieces anew, yet the deja vu recognition points come at us regularly, like the gradual dawning that the person who is speaking to us is our long-lost life twin.

Brilliant! And especially attractive at the Brilliant budget price.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tigran Mansurian, Requiem

Armenian lyrical composer Tigran Mansurian chimes in with a remarkable Requiem (ECM New Series 2508) dedicated to the victims of the Turkish genocide against Armenians (1915-17). There is a haunting aura about it all, born of  heartfelt sorrow and the melding of traditional Armenian modal byways and Western modern and early music elements.

On the surface of it such combinations are not surprising, but then this music is inspired. The RIAS Kammerchoir and the Munchener Kammerorchester under Alexander Lienreich take advantage of the spacious ECM production values to create a remarkable sonic aura that gives maximum expressive reflectiveness.

The various movements of the Requiem Mass have each their own beauty, regret and sorrow being of course a common denominator but expressive power and tenderness holding sway in contrasting ways.

After all has ended one feels like one has been subject to a ghostly visitation, an otherworldly presence of the long deceased victims, while alternately agitation and an unearthly peace reigns, There are few contemporary choral works more moving and singular than this. Performances are as close to perfection as one might dare to expect for such a new work.

Schoenberg, Chamber Symphonies, Five Pieces Op. 16, Berg, Webern, Two Pianos & Piano Four Hands Versions, Matteo Fossi, Marco Gaggini

The contingent of Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern did as much or more than anybody to shape the modern classical world in the early-to-middle twentieth century and beyond. Schoenberg was the lynchpin of the three, of course, though Berg and Webern each made of it all something extraordinary in their own right. Schoenberg's Chamber Symphonies & Five Pieces Op. 16 (Brilliant  94957) were landmark achievements in the movement away from conventional tonality but also compellingly significant as absorbing listens in themselves today.

"Chamber Symphony No. 1" was completed in 1906, "Five Pieces Op. 16" in 1909, "Chamber Symphony No. 2" in 1916. Early performances caused much controversy. They were followed by piano arrangements: a four-hands version of the first Chamber Symphony by Alban Berg, a two-piano version of the "Five Pieces for Orchestra" by Anton Webern, and Schoenberg's own two-piano version of the second Chamber Symphony.

Matteo Fossi and Marco Gaggini bring us spirited and idiomatic readings of the piano versions. What is remarkable especially is how, stripped of the orchestral tone colors and boiled down to their essences, each work exhibits its harmonic and melodic brilliance like a old master painting cleaned and scraped bare of yellowed varnish and grime, exposed to our view once again the way the artist originally conceived it. That of course is not to criticize the orchestrations so much as to underscore how hearing these versions renew for us the hearing of the vitally new, the revolutionary core of the works as they sounded to listeners then.

The experience of listening to this disk has been revelatory to me. There in short is a wealth of naked musical truth that showcases Schoenberg's remarkably forged vocabulary as if for the first time. Nothing can quite compare. Fossi and Gaggini bring a new brightness to these works and in their hands the transcriptions themselves are almost startling to hear now.

Strongly recommended.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Caetani, The Two String Quartets, Alauda Quartet

Roffredo Caetani (1871-1961) ? Another 20th century Italian instrumental composer most of us do not know.  Like some others covered lately on these pages, he is not exactly a full-blown modernist. Far from it. But there is some very good music to be heard on the recent release The Two String Quartets (Brilliant Classics 95198). The youthful but considerable Alauda Quartet tackle Caetani's "Quartetto Op. 12 in F minor" and the "Quartetto Op.1 No. 1 in D."

The minor mode of the Op.12 brings out a gentle impressionist-romantic melancholy that the Alauda Quartet handles without sentimentality, with the matter-of-fact presence that we in our contemporary world need to hear in this music--as closer to our time than the 19th century. This is a work I would not like to hear the Budapest Quartet play, because they might give it a heart-on-sleeve nerve-driven reading that would miss the subtlety and transcendence that the Alauda give to the work.

The early Op. 1 No. 1 in a single movement has a somewhat similar hushed expectancy, and a moodiness that like the Op. 12 speaks with a kind of intimacy that is not unwelcome. It has moments that are perhaps a little less transparent and more romantic than not, but there is nothing perfunctory about it, either. Caetani speaks with his own sincerity, lives and expresses convincingly within the style sets he inhabits.

If you have some time to devote to unfamiliar music and feel a little moody yourself this is attractive music. Recommended for you who feel the lack or recall a life abundance now dissipated! Or for that matter it  is for you who just like the idea of a kind of mysteriously gentle impressionist-late romanticism.

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.