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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Tchaikovsky, Pathetique, Symphony No. 6, David Bernard, Park Avenue Symphony


With the premier of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" in 1893, the curtain in many ways triumphantly came down on the Russian Romantic movement as at the same time the stage was set for the rise of Modernism via Rimsky Korsakoff and then of course Stravinsky, Prokofiev and in time Shostakovitch. That the extraordinary melodic gift of Tchaikovsky would carry over as one of the signature traits of Russian Modernism is very much the case. And it could be argued that the "Pathetique" was the exemplar of such tendencies, the masterpiece of the art in the late 19th Century.

There is a recent recording of the Pathetique (Recursive Classics 2059912) by David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. But first off, what of the music itself? 

There has been a tendency in musical thinking from the Romantic era onwards to ascribe the affective content of a work to a putative emotional state of the composer when he wrote the music. So for example Stravinsky's "Rite" was in part a product of a toothache, and so too the "Pathetique" has been ascribed to Tchaikovsky's gloomy state of mind as moving toward his death when he wrote the work. We tend to allow writers some separation between written content and state of mind. So fortunately no one to my knowledge has ever tried to tie King Lear to Shakespeare's mood. The idea of the tragedy in literature permits a somber turn of plot in a work without having literally to insist that it is a direct correlate to the outlook of the writer. We can have in film today a macabre horror film that may coexist with auteur mood while not ascribing a causal relation. Why then in music must we be so grossly literal? It is a tragedy of the Modernist movement that lay listeners often are frightened away from a very progressive work with the notion that the composer must be him or herself frightening! 

So the "Pathetique" and the narrative that tried to tie biography and work into an expression of one to the other. In the end it does not matter. Not for the music, that stands alone in the end as a work of great passion, perhaps, but the greatness needs no literal connection with the life.

And so we get the wondrous passage in the symphony from directly tragic opening and closing movements of grievous lament with the two ravishing inner movements with their irresistible rhythmic momentum and incredible melodic power.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony as their name suggests is not the sizable romantic outfit that might be expected to perform the "Pathetique." There are less strings to be heard, yet the sweep of affect in those instruments are still to be heard and properly so. What seems especially good about such a reading is the more out front mix of strings and winds-brass, with the latter becoming a bit more central to key passages.

Snappy crispness and lush, sad fogs come through nicely. And some of the soggy bloat of the large orchestra in some of the less stellar performances is avoided completely.

What we get is perhaps a version for our times, no less affective but perhaps less fully drenched in emotive despair. I find it convincing. If it may not be the absolute benchmark of performances, it has its very own elan and can be enjoyed alongside the more string-centric performances to give refreshment and to allow a re-experience of the music's profound lifeway presence. So check this one out by all means.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Piano Works, Alfonso Soldano

There is no shortage of great 20th Century Italian Composers. In the States at least, some of the greats are not as widely known as their stature would suggest. An excellent example is Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). He lived a good amount of time, was both prolific and original. Yet not nearly enough works are performed with any regularity in this locale. Why?

His biography supplies some details. A Sephardic Jew in Florence, he was forced to leave Italy with the rise of Mussolini. In 1939 he entered the US, one of many brilliant immigrant composers to make the exodus to the New World. Like some important others he ended up as a film composer, which was then and is now ever a mixed blessing for the compositional arts. He was in no way relegated to obscurity then. But his fate in the present has not entirely allowed him much in the way of immortality. What matters is our own readiness to hear more of his music.

An excellent opportunity arises in the recent CD release Piano Works (Divine Art 25152). From the "Italian Ravel" comes some eight compositional entities, a few in their world premier recordings. The liner notes tell us that the solo piano corpus of works have all but been ignored. It was Aldo Ciccolini who discovered that the works have an incredible charm and fluency. Pianist Alfonso Soldano gains an insider's vision of the music and transfers what he so wonderfully understands into our musical selves via the recording.

There is a true wealth of subtly shimmering, poised and grandly sounding melodic-harmonic brilliance. This is music of a very high caliber, a treasure trove of fantastically pianistic utterance. Alfonso Soldano seems the ideal vehicle for these works.

I cannot recommend this one highly enough. Or perhaps I just did? Just listen.




Monday, January 15, 2018

John Cage, Toshio Hosokawa, Frozen Time, Dominik Susteck

Those in various winter zones out there right now can affirm that the season has been most intemperate. What better a time, then, to talk about an album entitled Frozen Time (Wergo 73682). It is Dominik Susteck in a program of most engaging high modernist organ music. We get a look at three composers and their realizations of the instrument's sonic potential. It is very much about extended techniques and sound color atmospherics in a firmly avant new music sense.

The ability of the organ to endlessly sustain is a factor in all the music. But then what organ work does not make use of this trait in some way? It is implied in the very notion of massive organ acoustics in a large space.

And so we have music by John Cage ("organ2/aslsp"). Toshio Hosokawa ("cloudscape, sen iv") and the organist himself (carillons I-III").

So what of this music? Necessary for understanding Maestro Susteck's choice of works and their interpretation is a grounding in a sense of the traditional aesthetic regarding music. Time is a special category that helps distinguish traditional Japanese from Western musical stances. For the Japanese tradition the fundamental organizing principal is the breath. The length of phrases and their movement are not about pulses in time, but rather that which can and should be articulated in one full breath as a unit. Music imitates nature in ways that surround the fundamental breath of life.

John Cage in this regard often through his Zen Buddhist outlook brings something of the Japanese aesthetic to avant Western music. Is it a sort of breath-event for him? Not precisely. The music is rather an idealized model of nature, yet also as non-intentional, is something produced by nature. It is more complex than that. Nevertheless his organ work "Organ2/aslp" makes of the music itself and its realization like a roadmap to a territory, the landscape produced by the inner state of the performer in conjunction with the open yet specific demands of the score. Aslp stands for "as slow as possible," slow being here a relational unfolding of the sounds, the roadmap being proportional to the realized performance. Music here is a spatial thing, a sound-spatial realization of the proportionality Cage sets out. Hence it is not quite temporal and hence the title of the CD Frozen Time. These ideas are too complex fully to reproduce here.

The works that follow by Toshio Hosokawa and Dominik Susteck are other ways of establishing musical spaces.

The music as sounded by Dominik Susteck involves landscapes of emanation. The traversal of course implies a temporal presence in the Kantian sense, but the element itself is not primary to the music.

It is fascinating to me how this music functions on one plane as a series of mnemonic devices for a meta-natural state of being. That only if you care to hear it that way. You can bypass it and just listen, too.

Altogether the music presents provocative sound hermetics. Each invites the listener to experience the sounds as she or he would traverse an earthen or astral territory. We take a series of trips that are as much about the music's "pointing to" as they are about the sound sequences themselves. In this way we feel a more non-Western deconcretization of time and the intrusion of natural allocations. It is not necessary to grasp all of this to appreciate the compositions. They fit by their existence into what the modernist project makes available to the organ as instrument.

For all these reasons and for the quality of the sound production itself I expect any adventuresome soul would gain as I did a point of view about modern-as-beyond-modernist-dogmatics and so too a sensual envelopment of sound art. I recommend this one!



Friday, January 12, 2018

Donatoni, Boulez, Lutoslawski, Argot, Veronique Mathieu, Violin, Jasmin Arakawa, Piano

The present-day modern era has seen a great rise in literature for the solo violin. With some notable exceptions in the romantic era, there has not been such a flowering of this instrumental choice since the times of Johann Sebastian Bach. Today's release includes two such works, well played by Veronique Mathieu.

Pianist Jasmin Arakawa joins Veronique for a third series of works. The three composer's offerings together comprise Argot (Navona 6105).

First up is the title work "Argot: Due Pezzi per Violino" (1979) by Franco Donatoni (1927-2000), one of the premiere modernists on the Italian scene after WWII. It is a work of demanding agility for the player, both exploratory and filled with flowing musical syntactics. Ms. Mathieu carries the day in a very musical yet spectacular manner.

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) I imagine needs no introduction to readers of these pages. His "Anthems I Pour Violin Seul" (1992) has the rigor and energy one might expect from the composer in his later period.

From there we move to three choice Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) works for violin and piano."Recitativo E Arioso for Violin and Piano" (1951), "Subito for Violin and Piano" (1992) and "Partita for Violin and Piano"(1984) give us the Lutoslawski depth and expression in compact terms. They are works that carry with them some of the composer's greatness. All are fully worthy of the loving attention Mathieu and Arakawa give them.

Mathieu shines brightly on this program. Arakawa tends well a second flame as brilliant as the first in the second half of the proceedings. All listeners to the modernist excellence to be heard so abundantly will surely find in this album much to treasure. The Lutoslawski makes it all worthwhile; the Donatoni and Boulez give us pause and show us vibrant possibilities we are glad to contemplate and experience.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Michael G. Cunningham, An Arc of Quartets

Those talents who keep on producing despite less exposure than ideal may find themselves heard widely at last. US native Michael G. Cunningham (b. 1937) seems an excellent example. He has been composing since 1958. Navona Records has been releasing recordings of his music for a while. After five of mostly orchestral works we now have a fine chamber gathering entitled An Arc of Quartets (Navona 6081 2-CDs). It is the complete quartet output by Cunningham to date, from the No. 1 of 1959 to the No. 7 of 2016.

If it sounds patronizing to say I was surprised to hear such fine music, I only mean that any new (to me) body of quartets faces the stiffest challenge from the past quartet giants of the repertoire, obviously the late Beethoven quartets, then so many after...Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Bartok, Shostakovich, Ligeti, Carter, and on (leaving out some for now). After all the string quartet has risen to a medium where some of the most "serious" and uncompromised music has been made up to our own times. Can Michael G. Cunningham meet this challenge and win us over on his own terms? The answer, very happily, is yes.

All seven are well played by, variously, the Sirius Quartet, the Moravian Quartet, the Pedroia Quartet, the New England Quartet, and the Millennium Quartet.

All the quartets but the first have descriptive subtitles, "Three Satires" (2), "Partitions" (3), "Interlacings" (4),  "Aggregates" (5), "Digital Isorhythm" (6), "Back Home" (7). The descriptive phrases give notice that the music is "about" something more than abstraction, that the intricate and moving high modernist post-Bartokian style has a human subject at its base.

These are quartets in the grand modern tradition if you will. Deeply intricate, interactive, and probing are all of them. It is a milestone set where we may not expect to find them, only because Cunningham is for most of us only now emerging into our musical life.

I do recommend this for any modern string quartet enthusiast. It rightfully holds its own and seems destined to take its place in chamber gems of our modern period. Get this one by all means.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, Now, and Then, Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana, Dennis Russell Davies

As the agents of cultural and natural change are ever at work, we too make whatever change we can in our everyday lives and look ahead to a promise of better. The pressure of a newness can be unrelenting. There are times when there needs to be a pause, to make possible the verdure of revival, to give a space for a new becoming. Musically we ever need to look ahead as we look back.

As if to make that freshening an aesthetic reality, there is a recent release to give us a space of introspective languor and at the same time a new take on the modern project. Dennis Russell Davies and the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana pluck gently for us a crop of 20th century modern memento mori if you will, in very past-in-present, recent-past-presently works by Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio, Now, and Then (ECM New Series 2485).

What we hear are a series of reworkings of Frescobaldi, Legrenzi, Gabrielli, Viadana and Wassanaer, transcriptions with beautiful orchestrations that make a currency of the ancient wonders we can hear very anew. There is a poignancy to these reawoken transcriptions. Maderna is an orchestrational titan and he makes it all glow.

As if to remind us that we can go back to high modernism with the same refreshing new hearing outlook, Maderna's contemporary Luciano Berio (whose "Folk Song" arrangements come very much to mind in the wake of the Maderna here) has a nicely contrasted presence with a world premiere recording of the orchestra and guitar  "Chemins V," which is a resetting of the solo guitar "Sequenza XI." There is to be heard the wonderfully resonant modernist Berio, a vastly rich human modernism that has more than advanced syntax alone, the more of which all modernists need bring to the music for it to thrive.

That is the nuts-and-bolts of this recording. Performances are striking, recording values as fantastic as you would expect. The Now, and then old-in-new-in-new has a rejuvenating grace to allow you another feeling of present-past, to drive you to reflect that all past music, even later modernism takes place in a continuum that this program inscribes into your musical memory as it gives great pleasure in the doing. So I highly recommend it to you.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Igor Stravinsky, 3 Movements from Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Lomozov-Rackers Piano Duo

The monumental breakthrough works of Igor Stravinsky were at first as much about orchestration as anything. He used the orchestra in ways that fully extended what Rimsky-Korsakov had in turn extended from the Impressionists. And so works like Petruska and The Rite of Spring rang with an unforgettable sonance. We of course have lived with these works a century or more. And too it is the sequence of the notes that were a magic in themselves, an originality that beguiled with Petruska, then at first became shocked with Rite. There was an expressive opening out with these one-after-another works.

After listening so often to the final orchestrated versions over the years we can sometimes be so accustomed to the full unfolding in orchestral terms that we lose sight of the paradigmatic blossoming of the tones as a whole. So then it becomes time to make it all fresh again. An excellent means to that is in the piano four-hands arrangements of the works: 3 Movements from Petrushka, The Rite of Spring (MSR Classics 1628), as played by the Lomazov-Rackers Piano Duo.

These are of course two of the seminal breakthrough works in the advent of the Modern movement in music.That a century has passed since their first hearings is in many ways a blessing. We KNOW the music, understand it, and can with the right people push the performances further onto those pathways of what we hold to be so, what we can now hear clearly looking back from the vantage point of the present. So much has come after, as if to bring out the essence of this music and what it has done for us.

The Lomazov-Rackers Piano Duet make an ideal vehicle for these works. Clearly both have lived with this music intimately and can re-execute it all in ways that a long, lingering living-within makes possible a new possible.

So the Petrushka burns as brightly and as excitingly as it ever has in the piano reduction. It dazzles with light. The Duo have a technical prowess which is put in service to the music as it can be brought out in the most exciting manner. It is a wonderful thing to behold!

Then the Rites come through in ways I have not heard bettered. There is masterful control at work. The music no longer seems complicated and ineffable. It is perfectly, palpably clear and makes vibrantly musical sense. If anybody once feared or was outraged by this music, it is laughably behind us. Except there are people you might run into who cannot even understand Beethoven! My mother told me after she had finally gotten it all that "There used to be a man in the apartment downstairs from us who played classical music 78s. I was frightened by it. Until now."  The present among other things is a time where the modern begins a full assimilation into the folk mind. In my mother's lifetime Beethoven became mainstream. Now today another embodiment, the modern as part of the everyday mind and ears? Yes. And nowhere better to assimilate it than with this disk by Lomozov-Rackers.

The future may still be the past, but we are catching up slowly. Anybody who might take the time to listen carefully should find the present disk a very heartening thing. I cannot think of better performances! So you should listen! Buy with confidence.