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Monday, May 23, 2016

Errollyn Wallen, Photography, Orchestral Works

Living composer, UK based Errollyn Wallen has, as John Butt puts it in the liners to the album at hand, a special knack "to digest conflicting styles and ideas, close and distant, and embodying for us something of the complexity of our world." This we hear readily and purposefully in her recent Photography, Orchestral Works (NMC D221), a collection of four pieces written between 1996 and 2015. Each of these is a presentational singularity, an expressive modernity that is in the end tonal but in the expanded sense. There is drama and an approach to form in each and a quality of communicativity that gives her music the potential to be readily understood and appreciated by a broad spectrum of listeners.

She happens to be a woman of African descent, which surely is a matter of importance to her, though if one heard the music without knowing I do not think that the music would jump out at you and shout identity, though perhaps a close listen with all that in mind would reveal something of her roots culturally. To me the music speaks as music, modern classical music of an original sort, and that's as far as my ears need to go for now, as it is music not readily or primarily a music of identity unless it is of a world identity.

Indeed the works here occupy a place on the horizon of contemporary modern classical, each in its own way making a case for a particular, singular voice in a general zeitgeist of our present time. The title work "Photography" is a good place to begin, perhaps. It is a four-movement work meant to give you the feeling you have when you look at a collection of photographs more so than a single image. There are commonalities. The first movement has a dance-like quality, the second is a homage to J. S. Bach, the following movements connect to the first two as a kind of furtherance of the feeling of the music via convergences and divergences. Orchestra X under Nicholas Kok give us a good reading of it all, as they do of the "Cello Concerto" that opens the program.

Matthew Sharp is the solo cellist for the latter, happily. It all has something of the expressivity-emotive flourish of romanticism perhaps, only decidedly contemporary in the end, an abstraction that takes advantage of Sharp's way with virtuoso, rhythmic and lyrical possibilities and then in turn maps out how that relates to a rich string-orchestra backdrop. Certainly the work affirms Wallen's strong affinity with the string idiom but also her ability to construct vivid music out of such familiarity.

"In Earth" is an uncanny combination of string quartet, effects laden bass guitar and some moving vocals by the composer. It is based on early music derived harmonic movement but made very Wallen-like through an insistence and a heightening one has to hear to appreciate.

"Hunger" is played here by Ensemble X and the Continuum Ensemble under Philip Headlam. It is the first in a series of works Errollyn wrote between 1996 and 2000, each the product of a "Snapshot" in her mind of an imaginary landscape. The music has dramatic fullness that is better heard then described. It is in its very own way quite beautiful and intriguing. If there is a bit of the motor insistency of Stravinsky now and again, it is more for the benefit of a Wallenarian statement than a borrowing per se. It is an element of her vocabulary that she uses to advance her own meaningful ends.

After a fifth hearing, I am increasingly intrigued with the music, I want to hear it yet again, and then again. That is in part because Ms.Wallen's music is filled with things that resonate and give you a certain feeling of recognition that you have been to places like this before, only as you hear it all again it reveals a totality which is something much more than the first listens might suggest.

She is a modernist with her own internal compass of what seems and sounds right to her. And so we gain increasingly from exposure to it here.

Errollyn Wallen explores her own experience of the world and self in ways that make her an original. Hear this music. I strongly recommend it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Joan Tower, String Quartets Nos. 3-5, Dumbarton Quintet

Ludwig van Beethoven in his masterful late string quartets established the configuration as the one for a composer's most inner, profound, deepest musical statements. Others followed and not all of them put so much into their quartets, for indeed, such profundity is not the common lot of even the greatest practitioners, but there have been some, last century being a watermark with Bartok's, Shostakovich's and Carter's quartets attaining their own deep meanings. In the course of this blog I have suggested a few others and now we have the example of Joan Tower, in a new recording that features her String Quartets Nos. 3-5 and the Dumbarton Quintet (Naxos 8.559795), played dedicatedly and variously by the Daedalus Quartet and the Miami String Quartet, with pianist Blair McMillen joining in on the Quintet.

These are very serious works, filled with struggle and strife, but also transcendence and perhaps the elation of pure attainment. "Angels (String Quartet No. 4)" is especially moving, with its chromatic drama, its intense articulation of rapid figurations alternating with music of resolve. The tension and resolution are not a matter of tonality as much as contrasts of concentration versus open planes of relative repose.

But we can hear a sounding of inner depths  in "White Water (String Quartet No. 5)" and "Incandescent (String Quartet No. 3)" as well. All three are from the current century, No. 5 from 2012, No. 3 from 2003 and No. 4 from 2008, and they have the melodic and harmonic density of classic modernism, yet also a kind of looking back over time that in their way make them post-today, timeless in their direct grappling with the turbulence of history, if you will, and the need to come to grips with the meanings that remain to be uncovered, to be stated obliquely in musical terms.

The "Dumbarton Quintet" (2003) is no less serious and masterful, with the addition of the piano giving Ms. Tower a second, contrasting sound dialogue partner who both intermingles with the strings but then at times breaks free to engage in meta-commentary, complimentary additions and answers to the string's fervent questions, so to speak.

All of this is music of great strength, depth and seriousness. The performers give their considerable all and the results are extraordinarily moving. The quartets and quintet occupy a special place in the chamber music of our new century thus far. They are triumphant in attaining that inner place reserved for our greatest composers in those moments when they attain a supreme focus of expression.

Joan Tower is a voice of our time who manages here to give us works doubtless deserving of lasting appreciation over the times ahead. For now, though, we can savor these works as a living part of our present-day triumphs, a monumental yet inner-directed connection with our best, most transcendent selves.

Grab this release by all means!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alarm Will Sound, Presents Modernists

The superlative new music chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound comes at us with an unabashed anthology of high modernist works, humorously packaged (as you can see from the cover image above) as Alarm Will Sound Presents Modernists (Cantaloupe Music 21117). The cover art portrays a horrified couple hearing something they fear in proportion to the extent they cannot understand it. Other cover art emphasizes the Space Age of interplanetary exploration so much a part of the cultural gestalt that included the modernist phenom at its mature peak, say around 1965.

The liners talk about the average person's aversion to modernism, certainly during its height, no doubt continuing today. It is too new, there is too much that is new. On the other hand classic modernism emphasized leaving behind the past, ignoring it, embracing the avant present. That all-new, advanced unrooted innovation was of course the point, and it disturbed many people uncomfortable with the feeling of a foundationless, pure now.

So in this packaging Alarm Will Sound somewhat ironically looks back to the classic period of high modernism with six works that give us a chance to reconsider but also of course for those confirmed modernists or those at least sympathetic it gives us its own quasi-retrospective on it all.

And after all that is what this is about--something to introduce gun shy folks to modernism and some for the old hands to savor as well. We do have a program here that eschews the absolutely expected for an interesting mix of worthy pieces. Perhaps the most surprising is a Matt Marks arrangement of the Beatles' "Revolution 9," which either puzzled or intrigued those who bought the Beatles White Album back in the day. For impressionable and open-minded youths of the time, which I was one, the middle-period Beatles helped create a precedent of experimentation that opened at least some of us to the avant garde so much a part of the world then, though no doubt it also horrified some others.

This arrangement succeeds in adopting some of the loop dialog and other aspects into a modernist chamber piece. And in the end shows of course that the Beatles were delving into the modernist world with a gusto.

Another unexpected appearance is an Evan Hause arrangement of Edgar Varese's late '50s breakthrough "Poem Electronique," translating the electronic sounds into acoustic chamber equivalents. It is not so much a literal, note for note or sound for sound conversion, but rather like "Revolution 9" takes liberties and makes of it something different.

Those two bookends cradle some excellent modern chamber works that are musical modernist gems we may not be familiar with (I was not) but decidedly hold their place as representative examples. So we get Charles Wuorinen's "Big Spinoff ," Wolfgang Rihm's "Will Sound," Augusta Read Thomas' "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," and John Orfe's "Journeyman." For the Read work Kirsten Sollek and Caleb Burhans sound wonderfully well as alto and countertenor soloists, respectively.

And indeed conductor Alan Pierson and the Alarm Will Sound ensemble sound very well as a totality throughout, giving us performances that do justice to the complexities and intricacies of these works. They remind us in the process of their premiere new music chamber status, as one of the very best.

The anthology stands out as exemplary in its choice of not-so-familiar works and bold arrangements of the at least once very familiar. Those who may never have taken the plunge into high modernism will be well served in this as an introduction. Confirmed modernists will gain much with this program, too.

It's something of a must-hear release. Hear it!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tonu Korvits, Mirror

Is there an orchestral-choral school active these days that one might call "ambient"? Surely. Probably its most celebrated member is Arvo Part. The roots of such things go back to liturgical music in the Church--in Gregorian and Byzantine Chant and what developed out of it. We have a fellow Estonian today who with Part most certainly fits in with the ambient mode. He excels at it in his own way as heard in the new release of his music, Mirror (ECM New Series 2327).

We are treated to six of Korvits' works, all of which give us some remarkably resonant music in the hands of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Tonu Kaljuste, with solo appearances by Anja Lechner on cello, Kadri Voorand, voice, and the composer on kannel, a stringed zither-like instrument.

The music as a whole, notes Paul Griffith in the liners, has much to do with Korvits' own channeling of the Estonian choral tradition, especially as practiced by his predecessor Veljo Tormis. Be that as it may we who are on the outside of that tradition get some remarkably open, spacious, cavernous strains in which the sound of the hall plays an important part in framing the sounds themselves (something of course that all cathedral-centered music shares in various ways--with Korvits it would seem to be essential to the presentation of his vision).

The six pieces by Korvits take advantage of space and sound in organically moving ways. Anja Lechner's cello acts as a kind of reflector, a commentator of sorts when she is called for, in the opening work "Reflections from a Plainland" (2013) for cello and choir, a fantasy on a song by Veljo Tormis and Paul-Eerik Rumo. The final work "Lau" (2012-13)  makes beautiful use of Lechner as the soloist rising above the strings. And "Seven Dreams of Seven Birds" (2009/rev 2012) is perhaps the most stunning of all, evoking uncanny passages for cello, choir and strings with a very ethereal result.

The second work, "Labyrinth" (2010),  is a seven-part suite for strings. It gives us the purely instrumental aspects of Korvits in very pleasing ways.

In all the program has a good deal of contrast, variety, beauty and a very imaginative approach to the possibilities of ambience.

I found the music grew within the listening me as I listened repeatedly over time. As I began catching the inner details on the music on later listens the whole of the Korvits way blossomed out in ever more luxurious bloom. This is music that has an otherworldly presence for even a casual listen, but reveals its structural form and musical worth increasingly as one listens.

I do not hesitate to recommend this album to anyone seeking the possibilities of renewal outside of one's customary musical habits. Korvits is an original and an extraordinarily interesting one at that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Paul Bowles, Complete Piano Works I, The Invencia Piano Duo

Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was that most rare of humans, an extraordinary creative writer and a composer of real originality. The Sheltering Sky and other works are classics of 20th century literature; his compositions were what he was first known for but have mostly fallen into eclipse until now. His Complete Piano Works I (Naxos 8.559786) should give present-day listeners the chance to hear some of his music, some of his best, as played with sensitivity and care by the Invencia Piano Trio. I believe that those who don't know the music will be in for a very pleasant surprise.

For Bowles' piano music identifies him as a largely tonal, faux naive practitioner, an American Satie with his own straightforward yet very poetic and sometimes impressionistically sophisticated melodic-harmonic approach. We hear ten of his works, plus two very short musical tributes by Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thompson, respectively.

The music ranges from Latin-American influenced, folksy Americana or otherwise vibrantly lively and/or lyrical character studies and a more formal "Sonata for Two Pianos" that sound refreshingly unpretentious yet disarmingly brilliant. Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn (the Invencia Trio) play the two-piano works with a togetherness of subtle nuance and then take turns performing the solo works in this volume.

This first volume gives us a rousing sendoff that makes us eager for the second. If you seek a change of pace in your listening, this one will give you a delightful break from heavier fare. It is timeless yet in its own way modern in a sort of guileless, naturalist way. Very much recommended!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Miranda Cuckson, Blair McMillen, Bartok, Schittke, Lutoslawski

The talented and extraordinarily accomplished violinist Miranda Cuckson makes her ECM New Series debut with pianist Blair McMillen and a brace of three Slavic masterworks (ECM New Series 2446). The works here presented are without exaggeration three cornerstones of the modern repertoire for violin and piano: Bela Bartok's "Violin Sonata No. 2" (1922), Alfred Schnittke's "Violin Sonata No. 2 'Quasi una Sonata'" (1968) and Witold Lutoslawski's "Partita for Violin and Piano" (1984).

Each of these works combines in its very own way brilliant melodic-harmonic light, dramatic expressivity and a self-consciously wayward nod to tradition within a high modernist framework. They demand much of the violinist, much of the pianist, and in the process create when in the right hands a singular music forged in the foundry of strife, courage and boldness.

In the hands of Cuckson and McMillen they soar with impeccable precision, verve and elan. The violin parts demand much especially, and Ms. Cuckson triumphs, rising to each challenge with extraordinary dash and conviction. Clearly there is the sort of affinity between performer and composition that is temperamentally deep. Ms. Cuckson, in her words, revels in "the dark-hued tones and harmonies, the mordant wit, the detailed shaping of folk ornamentation."

Cuckson has made a name for herself as an unparalleled interpreter of the many shades of modernism with acclaimed performances of Nono, Korngold, Sessions, Carter, Xenakis, Shapey, Hersh, among others.

The insightful interpretations of the three works on this album will no doubt serve as present-day benchmarks of excellence for future performers to come. They are extraordinary, a triumph both for Cuckson and McMillen. Molto bravo!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dalmatica, Chants of the Adriatic

The Croatian coastal region of Dalmatica has a history of various  global influences ebbing and flowing with periodic war and strife. In the end it left the region with a rich musical treasure trove of medieval liturgical music that incorporates in local ways both Catholic and Byzantine music strands.

The four female singers of Dialogos under Katarina Livljanic and the group of male traditional Croatian cantors, Kantaduri, under Josko Caleta, join forces for a fascinating journey into rare Latin manuscripts, oral tradition and the polyphonic Glagolithic chants of the area. They cover by disparate examples the holy season spanning the time of Advent through to Holy Week. All this on the splendid album Dalmatica, From Oral to Written Transmission: Chants of the Adriatic (Arcana 395).

The collection is endlessly absorbing, indeed at times showing an original fusing of East and West and a medieval-and-beyond primality. There is plenty of polyphony, monodic plainchant, archaic harmonizations and a strong Byzantine influence.

There is a wealth of examples that are inimitable, unexpected, and quite beautiful in the hands of the talented and mellifluous singers. This is something special, experienced in the hearing much more so than in the telling.

I will thus leave off attempting to describe in detail the many musical ins-and-outs to be heard. Instead I will heartily recommend you listen closely and repeatedly to this offering. It is most assuredly a different confluence of early music liturgical possibilities, excellently presented.