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Friday, October 31, 2014

Stephen Paulus, Three Places of Enlightenment, Veil of Tears, Grand Concerto, Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero

When you encounter recent composers in the modern tradition, but more towards post-neo-romantic than serialist form, are they pre-postmodernists? There is a point where labels get ridiculous and that would be an example. Stephen Paulus has a musical style that is no throwback, yet his syntax is expanded tonality in the idiom of the 20th century more so than the ritualist quasi-naivete of the postmodernist crew.

That comes through very nicely in a new disk of concertos and an orchestral work featuring impressive performances by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero. Three Places of Enlightenment (Naxos 8.559740) carries the name of the subtitle for the "Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra" that heads off the program.

Sadly Stephen Paulus passed away several weeks ago in the aftermath of a stroke, so that his vital life statistics are now 1949-2014. By default this ends up being his first posthumous recording. The loss seems great as I listen to the music on this program.

The music is prosaic, filled with eventful thematic richness and a sure sense of orchestral dynamics and color. The "Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (Three Places of Enlightenment)" (1995) is given its world premiere recording here. It has great drama and beautifully brio string writing for the quartet and the orchestral strings alike. The three movements have a very engaging forward momentum with virtuoso interplay within the quartet as well as with quartet and orchestra. Movement I "From Within" has a stirringly brisk pace that gallops across your speakers with diverse inventive passages that flow together with great rhythmic drive. Movement II "From Afar" has a chorale-like sadness expressed in the quartet and carried over to the orchestral strings, eventually expanding to the wider orchestra with expressive eloquence. It is touching, not sentimental as much as it is beautifully resigned. The final movement "From All Around and Radiating Ever Outward" returns to the briskly driving determination of the first movement. It is a work of genuine note, in every way a pleasing and extraordinarily well-turned showcase for the quartet with the orchestra taking an active involvement in the shaping of thematic development.

"Veil of Tears for String Orchestra" (2005) is quite brief, an excerpt from the holocaust oratorio "To Be Certain of the Dawn." It is a somewhat sadly bitter largo movement, poignant but over quickly.

The three-movement "Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra" (2004) (in a world premier recording as well) features Nathan J. Laube in the soloist's role. It begins gradually, then launches into music with the kinetic drive of the string quartet concerto but of course with the color and power of the full organ on display. The organ is in a triumphic mode and the amassed sound of organ and orchestra make for some truly grand spark flying, thickly at times but luminously, too. The second movement, dubbed "Austere; Foreboding" has a stark darkness in keeping with such concerns. It quietly haunts as it shows the quieter side of Paulus's virtuoso brilliance in scoring. The movement lets loose with outbursts that overwhelm with a hugeness of sound and contrast with the quiet anxiety of the movement as a whole. The final movement ("Jubilant") gives us a rousingly kinetic triumph that literally pulls out all the stops and amasses a well phrased immensity that makes for a moving conclusion.

I am very glad to have this disk of the orchestral-concerted Paulus, which will give your stereo a real workout while it envelopes you in some beautifully crafted, rather brilliant music. The Nashville Symphony sound fabulous under Guerrero. RIP Stephen Paulus. Don't miss this beautiful farewell!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar," Vasily Petrenko, Huddersfield Choral Society, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

The later symphonies of Shostakovich occupy a turf of their own. Each has a personality. That seems especially true of his Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar" which has just been released in a Vasily Petrenko version with the male voices of the Huddersfield Choral Society, plus the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra with vocalist Alexander Vinogradov as principal soloist (Naxos 8.573218). It was completed in 1962. Shostakovich was to go on to live and compose up until 1975, so it is not in any way his farewell work--he wrote two more symphonies and other works in the last years.

And yet the 13th has a kind of finality to it, a dramatic quality that scales the heights of expressivity in some ways rather more so than previous works. It was written toward the end of Khrushchev's "thaw" and so perhaps there is a freedom of expression we are hearing. It also is based on a poetic text that severely takes Russia to task for its anti-Semitism, based on Yevtushenko's Babi Yar, which was published the year before. The influence of Mussorgsky can be heard; yet it is very much Shostakovich at his sardonic and almost brutal best.

It is a dark work, fitting to the subject matter, brooding on the depravity of pograms, the hardness of women's lot in WWII, suppression, the persecution of Galileo and the absurd policies of bureaucrats, each movement a setting of another Yevtushenko poem, each filled with reproach, the only redemption offered by a bittersweet, unforgettable motive in the flutes towards the end.

Bass vocalist Alexander Vinogradov gives us a gravitas performance of the best sort, amplified by the all-male amassed choirs. The Royal Liverpool Orchestra brings forth a vivid and rousing performance. Vasily Petrenko's interpretation is without flaw, impassioned.

There are many recordings of this symphony, some no longer available, but the Petrenko rivals them. With the Naxos price I recommend this version without hesitation. It is vital Shostakovich in a vital performance.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ernst Bacon, The Complete Works for Solo Guitar, Bradley Colten

Though Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) composed fairly prolifically for the solo guitar and other instrumental configurations, he was mostly known in past years as an exponent of art song. Only one solo guitar work was published during his lifetime. Yet 19 pieces survive, laying in manuscript after being composed between the 1960s through the 1980s. He wrote them in the main for his son Joseph to play. They have a kind of intimacy to them that perhaps reflects the family setting.

In any event guitarist Bradley Colten gives us a recording of The Complete Works for Solo Guitar (Azica 71294). I've been listening and duly report in as always. Bacon was a contemporary of American pioneers like Copland and Harris, though he never quite received their recognition. The works presented here by Colten have sometimes a rustic charm befitting of Americana. Other works are more straightforwardly abstract, more or less neo-classicist (for example "The Three Canons").

Through it all there is a good feel for the multipart and sometimes contrapuntal capabilities of the classical guitar. The music is modern in its chromaticism and at times quite "folky."

Bradley Colten gives us well worked-out versions of the music and the sound is good. It's the sort of album that takes a bit of getting into but the rewards are there awaiting the patient listener. It is a refreshing bit of plain air music, neither pretentious nor unschooled. It suits many moods in its matter-of-fact expression.

Nicely done!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Yves Ramette, The Golden Galaxy, Solo Works for Organ

If you respond to the world of Messiaen organ music there is Yves Ramette (1921-2012), a French composer finally getting his due. He does in his own way what Messiaen did so well, to utilize the organ in modern chromatic, symphonic ways. The Golden Galaxy (Navona 5971) gives you a full CD and another EP CD (with enhancements) that cover his works quite nicely, as recorded by the composer between 1965 and 1993. The set contains works of real drama and impact.

There is virtuoso excitement generated by these works in Ramette's hands and you don't notice a difference in sound quality between the early and later recordings. What stands out is the extraordinary orchestral sonics of these works, their boldness, their vivid contrasts, their thematic singularity.

Ramette was a student of Honegger and went on to teach and compose over his long life. The music here has true originality. Based on the recording one would not hesitate to place him among the great organ composing exponents of last century. For those seeking holiday fare there is the adventurous "For A Christmas Night," but this set is one for all seasons.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Arvo Pärt, Fur Anna Maria, Complete Piano Music, Jeroen van Veen

When someone has established a style of indubitable originality, it seems less critical to try and define the style category he or she works in. It involves a category of one. Still, one can see variously in the mature music of Arvo Pärt a looking backward at times, as a new music exponent of early music, a practitioner of "radical tonality," a minimalist, or perhaps at times a later follower of Erik Satie. The idea that you could fit him in a number of camps in part has to do with his originality. Beginning in the '70s he followed his own muse. Categories are applicable after the fact but do not explain away his music in any concrete sense.

So when we turn to a two-CD set just out, Jeroen van Veen playing Fur Anna Maria, Complete Piano Music (Brilliant 95053) we hear the composer as Arvo Pärt, not as a set of labels. The set covers his contemporary style period for the entire first disk and about half of the second. The second also gives you four earlier works from 1956-1959. The latter are brilliant in their own way, in a more conventional modern style that adds to our appreciation of the composer in his totality. They are pianistic and memorable.

But the later Pärt is what the bulk of this set covers. Jeroen van Veen (who we have covered earlier this autumn [September 17th] doing the music of Jacob TV) has the right personality for the music and delivers performances in every way worthy. Ralph van Raat did a disk of Pärt for Naxos some years ago (see October 20, 2011 posting) which has some overlap but then includes music for piano and orchestra. It is excellent as well. Both are different enough that one should probably have both.

Van Veen gives us two short and two long readings of "Fur Alina," which like some Satie works calls for repetition of a fairly short compositional sequence. We also get a bonus with the inclusion of "Fratres" and "Spiegel im Spiegel," which includes Douw Fonda's cello. Two pieces are for two pianos; Sandra van Veen joins Jeroen on these and sounds good.

The piano music universe of Pärt does not have much in the early-music influenced category. That's more what the vocal music covers. What his piano music is about in the mature period is singing diatonics, lyrical, reflective music that has some relation to Satie yet inimitably shows the very original melodic stamp of Arvo--deceptively simple yet unexpected in syntax so that it gives the listener much to ponder and never grows tiresome.

This is a central disk. Taken along with the van Raat Naxos it covers the pianistic totality of the composer and does so with all the sensitivity and deliberateness that is essential to bring his special world alive.

Strongly recommended.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Hilliard Ensemble, Transeamus: English Carols and Motets

"There is no rose of such virtue..." so the old Christmas carol goes. But roses, in our contemporary world anyway, are destined, like us all, to cease to be some day. And sad to say, the same thing is true of musical congregations. Transeamus: English Carols and Motets (ECM New Series 2408481 1106) will be the last album of the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM. They are retiring. They have graced our ears with early vocal music for decades and done some wonderful work in the contemporary vein, too. They have been a superb exponent of vocal color and nuance, one of the guiding lights of early music performance practices today. So we have one last album, of 15th century two- and three-part polyphony for Christmastide and on other related sacred subjects. For us they have been a blossoming, a rose if you will, and the season of the full flowering is passing, at least as an ensemble.

We take solace in this beautiful album. Certain music has the power to bring back a past long-gone. To me that certainly is true of early music for Christmas (and for that matter, a great Jewish Cantor performing music of an earlier age). It connects us with a past that humanity lived through. We feel a commonality with them, for we live, too.

The program is a good one, with music both familiar and less so, "There is No Rose" along with "Clangat Tuba" both by an anonymous composer. There are others by unknown hands, plus those by John Plummer, Walter Lambe, William Cornysh and Sheryngham.

Throughout it all there is the Hilliard Ensemble, a small vocal group who realizes polyphonic vocal music with a sweetness and light that make them inimitable. They sound great as usual on Transeamus, which aptly translates as "we travel on". And so we do, all of us, headed from here to where we will.

A singular album this is, in the simple small ensemble format but with a richness of timbre and recorded sound that stays in your ears long after the music has ended. May it never end.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

John Luther Adams, Become Ocean

Something that won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014 you tend to handle with kid gloves. But then you must listen anyway and forget all about that. Such is the case with John Luther Adams' major orchestral work Beyond Ocean (Cantaloupe Music 21101 CD and DVD). The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot have the performance for us here, and they give us a very atmospheric reading that seems just right.

It is a sprawling work, a long, sustained representation of the primordial ocean. The ebb and flow of the music is like a series of waves in ultra slow motion. Very long, tonally chordal note combinations cluster and flow in the music. There is a central, slowly ascending motive in the strings that reappears from time to time. It is music that is ever-changing from within, yet somehow ever the same. There are arpeggiated figures on the piano, mallets, harp and other instruments that merge with the long tones and do not as a result stand out as minimalist in design. This is more akin to the sort of Radical Tonality that we have heard in many examples on Cold Blue records (do a search for those) only this is for a seemingly large orchestra and goes on for quite some time.

It is mystical, haunting, filled with epic sea-as-cosmos audio that will put you in a very different place.

The CD has great sound; the DVD gives you the 5:1 surround option and gently fades a series of beautiful sky-ocean images that repeat throughout the performance.

Description in words only takes you so far with this music. It really must be heard. It along with Markus Reuter's orchestral work (see review from last June) gives you a new spiritual opening if you will, an orchestral soundscaping that takes you away from rhythm and brings you instead to an endless canvas of solid and transparent color fields, a long unbending road through sheer and ravishing sound blocks.

Highly recommended.