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Monday, October 23, 2017

Thomas Ades, Asyla, Tevot, Polaris, London Symphony Orchestra

For present-day modernist contemporary orchestral music, one does not find a more talented and sure handed exponent than the English composer Thomas Ades. Put simply he is an inventive and orchestrational master of our times. Three major works and a short rejoiner comprise a most welcome contribution to the Ades discography by the London Symphony Orchestra. The four compositions cover a broad period between 1997 and 2010.

Asyla, Tevot, Polaris (LSO 0798) and the brief "Brahms" canvas an enchanting and stirring terrain that tightly knits original content with brilliant orchestral apportioning. One feels with all of this music that Ades is in his element, that there feels like there is a one-to-one relationship between musical ideas and how they are shaped by the orchestral mass.

"Polaris (Voyage for Orchestra)" (2010) explores, in Ades' own words,  "the use of star constellations for naval navigation and the emotional navigation of the absent sailors and what they leave behind." It is a deeply spacial and ghostly panorama that pits brass choirs off stage with myriads of rapidly moving but quietly articulating points of musical light. All twelve tones are utilized with three poles of magnetic pitch centers holding sway one by one. It is as if the vivid night sky reminds us of the sailors who have left us on a journey no longer dependent on currents and oceanic spans.They now are within those constellations, journeying forward outside of our standard accessible material world? Maybe.

Brahms (2001) is a brief homage to what Ades refers to as the logic of Brahms' music, as aside from the warmth and beauty of it. Samuel Dale Johnson on baritone presents an expressive text atop an orchestral atmospheric.

Backtracking to the opening "Asyla" (1997), it centers around places of safety, of confinement, of last resort, away from a mad world. They are epitomized by the concert hall and the presence of orchestra, a place where "we feel at home, or where we once felt at home." There is something remaining of the madness of life present in the score, a holding in place and aestheticization of the danger outside, a cultural domestication. The music is pointed, colorful, and resituated within itself in ways that evoke the refuge and the thing from which we flee, if I can take the liberty of my own reading of it all.

"Tevot" (2005-6) is effectively Ades' second symphony, based on the Hebrew "tevot" which means both the bars in a musical score and words. In the Bible it refers to Noah's Ark and the reed basket fashioned by Moses' mother to take him down the Nile, in both cases places of refuge, structures made of "firm materials." Ades conceived of these complexes of meanings in a totality, where the bars of music act as vessels for the music and its journey through fluid danger. The music creates organic periodic repeating and variational snippets bordered by bar lines. It is ingeniously structured and fashioned, containers and their contained. Brilliant in its immediacy and parcelling out. It is that.

So we have the sum of what we most willingly hear on this new collection of Ades' works. Each is striking, seemingly inevitable yet paradoxically surprising in its individual outcome. Ades is like that. You get what you have every reason to expect, but in that getting you are moved into the realm of the unexpected.

The CD comes in two versions on two discs, the standard two-channel CD audio version and the multiple voiced BluRay.

Either way this is extraordinary music, landmark-scapes of richly varied orchestral sense. Get it by all means!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Chevere, Cuban-American New Music Collaborations

Ansonica Records continues to create situations of Cuban-American confluence, collaborative projects that bring together US composers and Cuban composers and instrumentalists. Chevere (Ansonica 0005) documents a January 2017 session where a sense of adventure holds sway and leads to consistently interesting results.

The tone is set decidedly with Arthur Gottschalk's "Imagenes de Cuba," a chamber work based upon the familiar "Peanut Vendor" theme. From there we have the always absorbing John A. Carollo and his "In Your Hour of Need," a wonderful piece that combines Cuban rhythmic roots with a freewheeling new music attitude. The results are uncanny yet decidedly right.

We go from there to another five works, all interesting and at times surprisingly unexpected, such as Meira Warshauer's two Jewish-tinged amalgamates, "Akhat Sha'alti" and "Oseh Shalom." Further on we have notable contributions by J.A. Jawarsky, Miguel Matamoros & Moises Simons, and Mona Lyn Reese.

It all makes creative use of the frisson that can result when cultural intersections connect with creative symmetry and contrast.

A very rich and rewarding experience can surely be had with the program. Viva!

Leo Ornstein, Complete Violin Sonatas, Hebraic Fantasy, Three Flute Pieces, Francesco & Stefano Parrino, Maud Renier

The figure of composer Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) remains obscurely but constantly visible on the Euro-American scene if one looks carefully for his music. A Russian Jew born in present-day Ukraine, he came to the United States (New York) in 1906, where by around 1920 he was the enfant terrible of modernism, as a composer and pianist. Then he abruptly abandoned his concert career and went on to teach. His music faded from the limelight and he lived out his long life in relative obscurity.

His music nevertheless still speaks to us. Some of it is tonal and late romantic, some of it daring and boldly dissonant. In the recent Complete Violin Sonatas (Brilliant Classics 95079) we get both Ornstein styles, the modern iconoclast and the romantic lyricist. The soaring violin component is a constant, the piano element determining largely which of the two creative poles are dominant in any moment, and sometimes, as in the "Hebraic Fantasy," there is an uncanny commingling of both elements and Jewish tonality with a decidedly expressive flourish. 

We hear his two published Sonatas, the Hebraic Fantasy and an Op. Posth. Third. It gives us a long listen to how he looked at the violin-piano totality. And then as a bonus we also get "Three Pieces for Flute and Piano," which takes flight in a middle ground halfway between the avant and the romantic.

And in all of it the modernist and the expressionist are at the forefront, neither the one nor the other having absolute reign. And there is the Jewish-folk element present, too.  The performances are uniformly excellent. It is a valuable addition to the Ornstein discography. It may not be a demonstration disc for his radical modernist side, but then again it gives us a balanced look at his overall thrust and appeals uniformly as good music. Recommended.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Alexey Wladimerowich Stanchinsky, Piano Works, Ekaterina Derzhavina

It is a truth albeit an obvious one: you never know until you know. We know that by living our lives. And listening. Someone a while ago might have advised me to listen to the Piano Works (Profil Edition Gunter Hanssler 170003). Hearing is believing, in the end. And the results reveal a composer of original, somewhat eccentric and unexpected stature. Alexey Wladimerowich Stanchinsky (1888-1914) died at just age 26 at the start of a religious pilgrimage that took him just a short distance from his home. He had to wade neck-deep across a river and the exposure cut short his existence.

He was a student of Taneyev and studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory. A severe bout with mental illness undermined his health. The pilgrimage put the final punctuation on his life.  But he left behind a bold and daring series of piano works, some remarkable examples of which can be heard as played with zeal and precision by Ekaterina Derzhavina on this fine volume.

The first bars of his first opus "Zwolf Skizzen" let us know we are in for something unusual. Sorabji or Alkan come to mind, not so much as an imitation as a parallel. Then there is Mussorgsky, surely. The rest of the pieces in this startling opening salvo bear out the first impression. This is a remarkable late romantic kind of modernism that must have startled its hearers even more than it does our modern listening selves. More than 100 years later, however, we nevertheless sense we are in the presence of a unique musical voice.

The "Praeludium," "Erste Sonate," and "Lieder ohne Worte" confirm our first encounter.  Often enough there is a thoroughly "conventional" Lisztian overwrap of rhapsodic effusiveness to be heard. But even then the actual sequences can startle for the unexpected progressions or melodic directions the music takes. And that veneer can strip away and you get another look at a musical mind that strikes boldly out on then untrodden paths.  As the liner notes state about the sonata, there is a "distinct predilection for the juxtaposition of diatonic modes [instead of the customary development of chromatic harmonies]." Yes, and how they sequence is not expected either. Chords in fourths, even, but not like Scriabin. There are all kinds of things in this music that set it apart. Yet it reflects the veneer of the grand romantic piano tradition, too, when that seems appropriate. Unexpectedly, always.

The sessions come from 2004 and 2005, so my guess is this has been released before? It makes no difference. This is a revelation. Stanchinsky, had he lived, could have taken us into another universe of possibilities. Yet there is plenty to hear already in his short life's output. Ives went his very own way in the US. In Russia Stanchinsky was going somewhere bold, too. He was cut short. Thankfully we have this volume to savor. Stanchinsky may have been a well kept secret. We can now let this music out in the open. Let it breathe. Thank you, Ms. Derzhavina for giving us these beautiful performances. Thank you, Stanchinsky for your short life and its music!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

Why I am not sure. I have had some recorded version of Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3 (Naxos 8.559844) for many years. Yet upon hearing this new version by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, I am struck by why I have not been more mindful of its power and great beauty. I hear it as if for the first time. Perhaps it is in part because the fourth movement is performed in its original uncut form, it alone running some 15 minutes. It endpins the symphony in a palpably more dramatic way.

And in its longer form is becomes something more than a quotation of his seminal "Fanfare for the Common Man." It instead becomes a central thematic element.

Yet it is more than merely that. Like "Appalachian Spring," where the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" tops off the work and gives it a trajectory, yet contains all in all some of Copland's most evocative pastoral music, so too the Third is redolent with an earthy joy, at once pastoral and filled with both rural and, if you will, some of the bustling celebratory complexities of the American town. And too the "Fanfare" is a thematic culmination.

So many years later, we can be less mindful of the central role the end of WWII is meant to play out in this symphony, written in 1946. Like Shostakovich and Prokofiev did in their symphonies of this period, it expresses a relief that the struggle is over. Copland's general sanguine outlook gives us something more in the line of pure joy than his Russian counterparts may have expressed. That is only to say that Copland remained Copland, as Shostakovich and Prokofiev remained true to themselves as well.

And in all that we hear a near ideal reading of the symphony by Slatkin and the Detroit Orchestra. The placid beauty of America at peace, the bustle of renewed life and the tribute to the heroic efforts of "the common man"come together for a whole that I seem to hear cohesively as if for the first time. The longer version of the final movement helps give the work a new balance it may not have quite as readily in the version we usually hear. But Slatkin gives each element equal and detailed weight so that we come away moved and satisfied.

As a bonus we also get a nice performance of Copland's 1971 "Three Latin Sketches," which fits in as a rewarding coda to all the music here.

So that is what we have on this one. It is a version of Copland's Third that makes very musical sense out of the score, balances out expression and nuance, draws out the very powerful  totality Copland meant us to hear. It is landmark and worth the trouble, very much so.








Monday, October 16, 2017

Tippet Rise OPUS 2016, Domo

There are musical gatherings that are more than a collection of musicians addressing a body of works. There are those most welcome but also most rare of confluences, the time when magic prevails. Such was very much the case with Tippet Rise OPUS 2016 and their Domo (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 660).

The recording documents a concert held last year at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana, set on a stunningly beautiful natural and sculptural site that most apparently lends itself to inspired music making. Domo gives us a remarkable chamber music program of mostly early modern Russian chamber landmarks and a few notable other works, all performed with uniformly high caliber artistry.

Everything begins with a roaringly dramatic performance of Scriabin's "Piano Sonata No. 5," a very singularly passionate reading by Yevgeny Subdin that to me stands out as one of the most moving I've heard. It is followed by two songs and a piano work by Anton Garcia Abril, performed with care by pianist Christopher O'Riley and soprano Emily Helenbrook.

O'Riley then joins with cello master Matt Haimovitz for a ravishing version of Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise." Then we are treated to an infectiously joyful version of Stravinsky's third movement for the solo piano version of "Trois mouvements de Petrushka" played with nearly ecstatic verve by Jenny Chen.

From there we get quite stimulating versions of the second movement from his "Suite No. 1" (O'Riley and Anne-Marie McDermott, pianos) and Chopin's "Nocturne Op.15, No. 2" (Stephen Hough).

The fitting and most notable climax and finale comes with a trumpet and two piano version of Scriabin's "Poem de l'extase," with O'Riley and Svetlana Smolina on pianos and Elmer Churampi on trumpet. I've never heard the chamber version and I must say in the very capable hands of these three artists the music has all the mystery and thrust of the orchestral version but at the same time an intimacy that is different and refreshing.

So I am not one to gush about what could on the surface seem to be an ordinary concert of mostly well-trodden repertoire pieces. It isn't. The performances are marvelous, uniformly so. Anyone who cherishes the Russian early modernists will surely find this a very memorable recording.

Wow.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Daniel Lentz, River of 1,000 Streams

River of  1,000 Streams (Cold Blue Music CB0050) has a logical horizontal flow that has to do with an experiential "aha" moment Daniel Lentz had while standing on the banks of the Colorado River one early morning. What he felt inspired him to conceive of this EP length work for solo piano and "cascading echoes," the latter of which appear very subtly and organically in the course of the work. Vicki Ray brings life to the part with sureness and sensitivity.

Just as you cannot step in the same river twice, you cannot hear this work each time without feeling a new aspect of what you hear. And as a reviewer, if your original article was somehow wiped out as mine was sometime this past Tuesday, you cannot write the same review twice! Technological life is filled with such temporal anomalies. We no longer need Star Trek to experience virtual worm holes in the space-time continuum. Involuntary erasure gives us all we would ever want, which in fact is very little in this case!

There is the constant of the dramatic arc of the music, beginning quietly and gradually building in developmental sequences of sostenuto shimmers of radically tonal rolls of chordal clusters that flow along river-like, adding embellishments and thematic directional cues that turn it all after all into musical syntax and not just atmospherics, though even if Lentz kept it entirely primal we would be transfixed. But no, he wants us to embrace its long sprawling arc of cosmic event unfolding as a very long whole.

This is an excellent example of the Cold Blue school of mesmeric tonality. It speaks with a sprawling yet disciplined eloquence and takes us on a trip as would a river's endless flow. Beauty is there for us. We only have to stand (or sit) and hear the music go by.

Excellent!