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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Alfred Schnittke, Symphony No. 1, USSR Ministry of Culture State Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky

The premiere recording of Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 1 (Melodiya CD 10 02321) by the USSR Ministry of Culture State Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky in 1987 was a signal event in evolving glastnost policy as well as a triumph in Russian late-modernism. The recent Melodiya CD reissue has just become available here and it is a remarkable album.

The Symphony is a rather titanic work, filled with dense modern clashes and collages of many different musical strains, from baroque to free jazz, from marches to the blues, all interspersed within a linear fire-breathing avant orchestral setting. In the original liners reproduced for the CD edition Schnittke called what he was doing "polystylistics" and noted his debt to pioneering composers like Ives and Mahler. No doubt the singular Schittke First was and is a landmark venture into a postmodern landscape, albeit a kind of continuation and extension of collage style. Schnittke was most certainly at this phase of his career one of the most important exponents of the new cacophony, the "impure" form of modernism of the last years of the 20th century. This is a extremely important and also extremely engaging work that gives us a window onto the era as seen by a brilliant musical mind.

I missed the original LP issue at the time. It was not widely distributed in the States but I soon heard of the composer and ultimately began exploring his music in some depth based on what became available to me.

This recording marked a real turning point for the composer. He envisioned it as a kind of chronology of the 20th century in musical terms. There are aleatoric elements and huge expanses of orchestral sound that require a very large symphony orchestra, which subsequently produces some of the most remarkable sonic spectacular fireworks you are likely to hear from such an outfit.

A good deal of preparation no doubt was required to get it all right. The performance has nothing of the slapdash to it, though there are extraordinarily chaotic qualities to parts of the work. Rozhdestvensky manages to convey the excitement and turbulence of the music while parsing out each sound event section with some care and attention to the overarching whole.

There is at least one later recording available according to Amazon. I have not heard any but this one. The historic and artistic importance of the Melodiya recording makes it essential, surely. It is indispensable Schnittke and a breakthrough postmodern work that should be studied and appreciated by anyone committed to understanding late modernity in the orchestral sphere. It is also a breathtaking work in definitive performance!

If you want to know how we got to where we are today, this belongs in your library.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Leonardo Balada, Concerto for Piano, Winds and Percussion, Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble, Soloists

Spain's most distinguished high-modernist? That likely is Leonardo Balada (b. 1933). Naxos has been releasing a number of fine volumes devoted to his music (look his name up on the search box above for more reviews), the latest of which is Concerto for Piano, Winds and Percussion (Naxos 8.573064). It pairs the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble under various conductors with Enrique Graf, piano, David Premo, cello, and Ashan Pillai, viola, for the concerted numbers.

Balada's output is divided between a first, neo-classical period, characterized by the "Concerto for Cello and Nine Players" (1962, rev. 1967) included here, and his later high-modernist phase, which is represented nicely by four works on this volume, composed between 1971 and 2009-10.

He came to the US years ago, where he graduated from Columbia after studying with Persichetti and Copland. He has been a professor of composition at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh since 1970.

The Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble is a first-rate ensemble and seems ideally suited to perform the various compositions on this album.

We get to hear an excellent assortment of works by Balada: "Combres--A Short Symphony for Band" (1971), the "Concerto for Piano, Winds and Percussion" (1973), the aforementioned "Concerto for Cello and Nine Players" (1963), a first recording of his "Viola Concerto" (2009-10) and his "Sonata for Ten Winds" (1979). All are central Balada, showing master craftsmanship and inspiration, a modernist and neo-classic tang, and a contrapuntal complexity that does not so much remind of later Stravinsky as much as parallels him as an equally original voice in the modern lineage.

The music can be ascerbic, it can be stirring; it is consistently dramatic and expressive; it is always substantial.

It forms an excellent introduction to Balada for those not familiar, and also gives those that do a wealth of excellent music to savor. The performances are exemplary as well.

Very recommended!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Ice Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir, In the Light of Air

In the lineage of today's music, at least in the ambient, radical tonality, sound color realm of works, one might trace a movement from Satie to Morton Feldman to now as one line. That seems very much so to me in the music of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, specifically her In the Light of Air (Sono Luminus 92192) as performed by ICE.

The program consists of one longer and one shorter piece, the title track being the former, "Transitions" the latter. The two flow together seamlessly in a sustained mood that begins as a hushed carpet of sounds with emerging motival elements that increasingly come to the forefront as from a mist, only to recede again.

The instrumentation is electronics, viola, cello, harp, piano and percussion, including an installation of metallic ornaments that appear dramatically and percussively in the final "Remembrance" movement of the first work.

"Transitions" was written for the cellist in the ICE ensemble, Michael Nicolas, who alternately personifies "man" and "machine" in the piece, expression and emotion versus maximum precision and accuracy.

ICE, which stands for the International Contemporary Ensemble, is a collective of some 35 musicians, capable of morphing from the smallest chamber ensemble to a rather large chamber orchestra depending upon need. The quintet assembled for In the Light of Air sounds absolutely perfect for the music at hand, which makes sense in that both works were created with them in mind.

That music has considerable magic. There is a sort of sustained ritual tonal wash to the first piece with emerging instrumental segments that stand out as having a discursive logic in the overall scheme and great memorability. The "man and machine" oscillations of "Transitions" embody contrast and color in different ways, displaying the possibilities in a solo cello context, so that there is a sort of inter-resonating totality to it all, a definite stylistic congruity that is strikingly original.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir has given us considerable beauty and great depth in this program. She is a special creative force and one most definitely to watch in the contemporary music world going forward.

As is mostly the case in Sono Luminus releases, the music is on two disks, a standard CD with conventional two-channel playback, and a blueray capable of 5:1 surround sound.

Stunning! Totally recommended!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Sibelius, Belshazzar's Feast, Leif Segerstam, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra

Ah, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). His music is magic. Where would his music have gone had he not received at a fairly young age a lifetime pension from the Finnish government to compose, with seemingly few strings attached? Would he have kept to his sort of post-impressionist, post-romantic style, as he did over his lifetime? Who knows. I do not.

It is difficult to imagine Sibelius being something other than who he was. I will admit that it took me some time to appreciate how singular and wonderful that is, especially in my younger years when I was expecting all modern composers to be...overtly modern.

I listened, appreciated, but it wasn't until I took a flight from Chicago to New York years ago and they had his 5th Symphony playing repeatedly over the classical music channel on the earphones. A revelation when combined with a striking view of the sky and clouds...

So now I can say that Sibelius is essential, to me at least. His symphonies, his Violin Concerto, his orchestral work, the "Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends from the Kalevala)," the major tone poems, all wonderful.

And then there are other less-known miscellaneous works of his. You can hear some of them very respectably performed on the new release Belshazzar's Feast (Naxos 8.573300) by Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic.

It is a mix of fascinating music created mostly in his younger years. The "Overture in E major" and the "Scene de Ballet," both from 1891, are apparently what were his first efforts, the first two movements for an inaugural symphony that he never completed. They are in some ways more Sibeliusian than his actual "First Symphony," at times, the actual first having more of a Tchaikovskian feel now and again.

The central work on the collection is the title piece, "Belshazzar's Feast" (1906). It is a multi-movement suite of incidental music composed for the play of the same name, written by Sibelius's friend Hjalmar Procope. It has much charm and a goodly amount of the hallmarks of Sibelius at his best.

To complete the program are four other brief pieces written between 1894 and 1938, one-off orchestral works that are perhaps not masterpieces but gratifying to hear for anyone who admires the composer and his ways.

And in that this collection will be cherished by Sibelianites. It is probably not the album to start with if you don't know Sibelius well. For that you should probably begin with the Violin Concerto and/or the Symphonies (three and on). Nonetheless this is a charming set that at the Naxos price is hard to beat.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Grazyna Bacewicz, Complete String Quartets 1, Lutoslawski Quartet

I have discovered to my delight that Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) was more than a merely very interesting Polish modern composer. Her string quartets are brilliant. Happily Naxos sent me their first volume, Complete String Quartets 1 (Naxos 8.572806) as played with care and great understanding by the Lutoslawski Quartet. And a few listens later I come on the blog to express my satisfaction and even amazement with the results. The inaugural CD includes her Quartets 1, 3, 6 and 7, covering the long period from 1939 to 1965.

Each one is a gem, holding a sort of middle ground between Bartok and Ligeti, and doing it so well, so much with her own special integrity. I am almost at a loss for words. "A progressive composer would not agree to repeat even himself," she remarked in 1964, and that is very much true of the quartets. She takes on neo-classicism in the delightful First Quartet and then proceeds to give us a very personal form of expressionism, serialism and beyond in the later works.

All have a special structural integrity, a sense of form that lights up the part writing, gives us motivic originality and a discursive flow that pours out in streams of exceptional illumination.

She does not repeat herself. She follows that maxim so that each quartet occupies its own realm in the most modern and poetic ways. I should qualify that to say that my reactions are based of course on the four quartets included in Volume One, but I can scarce imagine that Volume 2 will be anything but an affirmation when it comes out.

The sound is pristine and well defined. The performances are world-class. And the music is unparalleled. What else need I say? I am stimulated to hear much more of Bacewicz's music as a result of this disk, and of course I await Volume 2 with keen anticipation. I recommend the first volume to connoisseurs of the string quartet and anyone interesting in 20th century chamber music. Do not hesitate!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Michael Byron, In the Village of Hope

Michael Byron composes in a radical tonality realm, producing music that has a sort of natural, processual feel to it. Several of his albums were favorably reviewed on this blog in 2014. Type his name in the search box for those. Today we have another, In the Village of Hope (Cold Blue 0043), an EP containing the title track, a single-movement work for solo harp lasting some twenty-odd minutes.

Tasha Smith Godinez performs the work with distinction. There are dual contrapuntal parts that continue throughout, in diatonic and sometimes pentatonic modes. The rhythmic, nature-inspired complexity of the two parts working together may call for two separate harp tracks, I am not entirely sure, but it makes no difference to the music, which is organic and endlessly fascinating. I just heard in from label head Jim Fox. The harp part is played with two hands in real time. That is difficult and some feat!

The two-part complexities are drawn towards cascading, infinitely variable rhythmic co-incidences that work together like the patter of rain on two different roofs. There is no overt synchronization; the diatonic-pentatonic patterns of notes play against each other in an infinitely variable way, modulating to a new key center now and again, but consistently irregular in ways the listener follows with a continual search for geometric ratios but finding them too complex to assimilate into a simple gestalt. And that in great part is where lies the charm and fascination for the listener, if not also for the sheer sensuality of the asymmetric pitch co-incidences.

The brevity of the work leaves you with just enough to convey an acoustic impression and a mood of tranquility and hopefulness. The sound of the harp has those sorts of connotations, at least for me, and the music does much to reinforce and underscore a peaceful yet dynamic experience.

In the end Michael Byron gives us a very satisfying work, a living, breathing cornucopia, a significant brush with music-as-nature, beyond the usual human restructuring. It is a delightful listen that I gain something from each time I hear it. If you are open to a new adventure in sound, this will doubtless provide you with much pleasure as well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Skyros Quartet, Introspective Odyssey, Quartets by Britten, Turina, Sibelius

Three fine quartet works from the early 20th century by composers known more for their work in other configurations? That would aptly describe the Skyros Quartet's Introspective Odyssey (Navona 6005). The ensemble gives us luminous, first-rate performances of Benjamin Britten's "Three Divertimenti" (1936), Josquin Turina's "La Oracion del Torero" (1925), and Jean Sibelius's "String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56, 'Voces Intimae'" (1909).

All three works have not necessarily been in the spotlight much in recent times. The Turina is brief, flamenco inspired with impressionistic touches, very delightfully direct. The Britten work is from his student days, but shows us a composer already well on his way to developing a personal, very original voice and gives us a good early view of what was fast-becoming his tempered modern outlook. The Sibelius, as so properly and subtly done by the Skyros Quartet on this recording, shows us especially well the intimate, reflective side of Sibelius, already moving from romanticism to Sibelius's own inimitable blend of impressionistic and post-impressionistic sound worlds, to the special Northern-European style he constructed out of a combination of personal lyrical inspiration and the folk echoes of his native Finland.

To hear all three of these works so well done is a rare treat. The Skyros Quartet make more of the music than some others have done. They take to each piece with a ravishing, articulate, sonically appealing approach that has passion more than sentiment, fully coherent phrasing and a sort of introspective reading that is true to the album's title. They give you plenty of reasons to appreciate the works anew.

For all these reasons I applaud the Skyros Quartet heartily. These are performances for our times. The music speaks readily and eloquently. Recommended!