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Friday, March 24, 2017

ACME, Thrive on Routine

ACME stands for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Based on the CD at hand, I must say I am impressed. I speak of ACME's Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus 92211). On it we hear a nicely chosen selection of modern/postmodern works occupying an ambient, radical tonality turf.

The group as a whole consists of two violins, a viola, cello, piano, celeste, and two vibraphones. Clarice Jensen is the Artistic Director.

In all five works are represented, each one a journey into tone color and depth of field.

Calen Burhams, the violist in the ensemble, gives us his Jahrzeit for string quartet. It is beautifully resonant with an atmospheric born of harmonics, pizzicato and sparely applied but lush harmonies. The ostinato pattern repeated and played on top of reminds of Glass perhaps, but most appealingly rises into its own depth of expression. I get a strong pastoral feeling that fills me with a nostalgia for springs and summers past--but that is perhaps entirely personal.

Next up is a solo cello work by Caroline Shaw, "in manus tuas," played by Clarice Jensen. The colorful ambiance of the work fits in and follows naturally with Burhans' opening. Pizzicato and arpeggiated bowing establishes a post-Bachian presence that wears nicely.

Caroline returns with a solo piano work (played by Timo Andres), "Gustave Le Gray." It has a touching, yearning motif that continues to repeat and open out with developmental graduals in a moody fashion. It is based on Chopin's "Mazurka, Op. 17" and motives from that work blend in various ways with Caroline's own inventions.

Timo Andres then gives us his string quartet work in four movements, "Thrive On Routine." It musically describes Charles Ives' morning routine of early rising, digging in his potato patch, playing some from Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" and so forth. The music has a playful deliberation that to me expresses  Ives' continually inventive being as contrasted with the recurring sameness of his morning ritual sequence.

The final work features the full ensemble in a flowering version of John Luther Adams 1999 opus "In A Treeless Place, Only Snow." On the aesthetic level it has a feeling of a sort of enlightened haiku thoughtfulness expressing the suchness of nature. The repeating and intermingling strands work together for a very processual, unified result. It is remarkable, evocative, realized with great sympathy and affinity with the composer.

The album comes, as is often the case with Sono Luminus releases, with two disks--one a standard CD in vibrant stereo, the other a Blu-Ray disk with 5:1 playback capability. I do not have Blu-Ray but I can imagine that this sort of program would sound ravishing in the expanded aural space.

After hearing this a number of times I come out of the program with an enthusiastic two thumbs up. It is nothing short of lovely. ACME is off to a wonderful start!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vyacheslav Artyomov, Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World, National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, Vladimir Ashkenazy

From the brilliant musical mind of Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov comes another volume of orchestral works including the monumental Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World (Divine Art 25143), very stirringly performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia.

I reviewed another volume on these pages several months ago (see search box above) which was nothing short of revelatory. This new volume confirms that first impression. Artyomov is a major figure on the Russian new music scene, with an explosively modern pallet of mystical, mysterioso universes of sound, a basic sensibility that goes back to Scriabin and Messiaen but then carries it forward to today with true originality.

Two substantial works comprise this additional volume: the title work "Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World" (1990/2002) and "Ave Atque Vale" (1997), for percussion and orchestra. A brief bonus work closes off the program, "Ave, Crux Alba" (1994/2012) for choral group and orchestra.

The Symphony has a vast spatial expanse as its foundational premise. The orchestra bursts forward with huge modern clusters and quieter introspective interludes. It is landmark in its dramatic thrust, sounding great as a CD and one can imagine even more spectacular live.

"Ave Atque Vale" has a singular role for solo percussion, handled deftly by Rostislav Shatayevsky. An immersively contrasting  aural dimension is the way forward, marking out yet another, more reflective but no less enthralling spatial-sonic universe.

"Ave, Crux Alba" ends the CD with a brief but memorably anthemic lyricism.

Like the volume previously discussed here, this one beautifully carves out for us a celestial mysteriousness and at times a hugeness that holds its own as some of the most bracing and original music of our times. Artyomov is a voice for today, ultra-modern, futuristic and vibrant in its consistent aural brilliance. Get this one! Get both!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dvorak, Symphony No. 9, From the New World, A Hero's Song, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orch., Krzysztof Urbanski

One of my happiest first experiences in classical music was buying and hearing Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, From the New World. I was still pretty new to the classical literature. I found a version that was affordable to me (I did not have much spending money of course as a kid) and it turned out to be faithful to the spirit of the music (in retrospect). I played it for my mom and she loved it, too. Like many of us in the US, we were flattered that a great composer took the time to visit and leave for us a masterpiece. Of course it no doubt energized the composers active in the US at the time and more so later, giving them the energy and courage to forge their own way.

The popularity of the work here is such that my friend Marc many years ago applied for a cashier's job at a local Sam Goody record store, and one of the few questions they asked him was "who composed the New World Symphony?" In those days the chains even sought to carry and sell the more fleetingly popular fare and to pronounce Dvorak's name properly was a sign as well that you knew enough about things to help customers.

Well the years have ticked by at an advanced rate and I do wonder if the 9th sells well anymore, if there is a populism that has brains and knowledge? Suffice to say that for me the 9th still rings beautifully in my ear. And when I hear the movement based on the spiritual "Going Home," I remember my mom and how she loved this symphony.

A recent move has stripped me bare of most of my vinyl and Dvorak's 9th was among those. I actually did not much care for the version I had ended up with, so when the Krzysztof Urbanski and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra came up as something to review (Alpha-Classics 289), I eagerly jumped at it.

This is a singing version with everything going for it. The only aspect that I had to adjust to was the highly variable dynamic level, which perhaps came about as microphone placement was some distance from the orchestra? Not sure there, but in any event once you turn up the volume a bit all comes into focus.

The connection of this symphony genetically with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony has hit me more forcefully as I listen to the NDR--and perhaps it is the fine definition of the strings in relation to the winds in the overall balance and Urbanski's painstaking attention to getting that phrasing-dynamics right that has brought the lineage connection to my ears that much more readily. In any case the balance and phrasing brings out the beauty of the totality and how countrified the music is in Dvorak's special way. The "Going Home" movement takes advantage of that as well as one might hope for. And no reading is complete of course without a ravishing treatment of the section. I can hear my mom responding again, wherever she may be up there.

Urbanski gives us an unhurried, detailed take on the entire symphony. It makes one feel that Dvorak did manage to capture then what made America great and it wasn't walls or tax cuts for the rich, crippling the "meals-on-wheels" program, or for that matter slavery. There was a human-human decency in the US at its best and a human-land relationship of respect and care when things were right, and I think Dvorak managed to put that into his music.

As a nice extra, the album includes the lesser known but worthy Dvorak tone poem "A Hero's Song." Urbanski and the NDR give us an impassioned reading of that, too.

Well now I would say that if you are looking for a very living version of the "New World Symphony," or one more if you have a few, this performance stands out as very fulfilling. It reminds me of what enthralled me about the work when I was 14!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Johan Halvorsen, Carl Nielsen, Violin Concertos, Henning Kraggerud, Malmo Symphony, Bjarte Engeset

If one gets a certain distance from the origin period of one's love for music, one generally finds oneself being exposed alternatingly between the known, the known re-presented, and the relative unknown. So today I am pleased to express my receptive thoughts on such a mixture: violin virtuoso Henning Kraggerud and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra under Bjarte Engeset giving us a program of Violin Concertos by Johan Halvorsen and Carl Nielsen (Naxos 8.573738). Added as a short bonus is Johan Svendsen's "Romance."

Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) was during his lifetime an internationally acclaimed violinist, conductor and composer. His Norwegian roots entered his musical language in a general way, and we can hear that readily within the late romantic Scandinavian idiom of his Violin Concerto. It was first performed in 1909 by Canadian violin virtuoso Kathleen Parlow, then only 18 years old. The work was greeted with an enthusiastic audience reception in the four performances Parlow gave the work between 1909-1910. In was never performed again during the composer's lifetime, and he apparently burned what he thought were all copies of the work on his retirement in 1929. That was a mistake.

But happily Kathleen Parlow had retain a copy of the complete score and parts, which turned up in 2015. Kraggurd premiered the first present-day concert performance in 2016 and on the heels of that made the world premiere recording of the work which we can now appreciate here. It is a substantial bundle of rhapsodic demeanor, folk color and a definite "Northern romantic" quality. Kraggurd and the Malmo Symphony conducted by Bjarte Engeset, give us a spirited, idiomatic reading fully worthy of the work's substance and charm. And so we have something of great interest in fully fleshed out form.

The Halvorsen performance certainly makes this release worth pursuing in itself. But then we have the Nielsen Concerto nicely done.  If you do not have or have not heard this aspect of the Nielsen complete opus you no doubt should.

Johan Svendsen's "Romance" is a sweet surprise. It is northern lyric rhapsodicy in a fine fettle.

And all-in-all this is a thoughtful combination, well worth the good Naxos price. Hear it!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Pilgrim's Progress, Radio Play, Boult, BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Chorus

What lengths we go to hear ALL of Ralph Vaughan Williams' oeuvre depends on how committed to such a project we might be.

An example of the charming yet non-essential Vaughan Williams there is out there is the complete 1943 BBC radio play broadcast of The Pilgrim's Progress (Albion ALBCD 023/24) on two CDs, with incidental music by Vaughan Williams, played and sung by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The classic tale is rendered as only the BBC could do back then, with a period dramatic ethos we do not experience so much anymore.

The music itself has much to recommend it. Eight years later Vaughan Williams completed a full opera on the same subject, and this music has similarities and differences that will fascinate the completist.

Included is a 1929 broadcast of two short choruses by Granville Bantock, commemorating the John Bunyan tercentenary.

Perhaps this is not for everyone. But the serious Vaughan Williams enthusiast will respond readily. Others may be satisfied with Vaughan Williams' complete opera.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Martucci, Music for String Quartet, Piano Trios, Piano Quintet, Maria Semeraro, Quartetto Noferini

The absolute predominence of opera began to balance off with the growth of instrumental music after the turn of last century in Italy. One of the most interesting composers in this development was Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909). Pianist Maria Semerano and the Quartetto Noferini give us a judicious sampling of his chamber music on the recent 2-CD set Music for String Quartet, Piano Trios, Piano Quintet (Brilliant 2CD 94968).

Martucci managed to avoid the opera-producing hegemony of his times in Italy, embarking on a career as piano virtuoso, then establishing himself as an instrumental composer as well.

The assembled musicians give us very idiomatic, very decent readings of the "String Trios Nos. 1 and 2," the "Piano Quintet Op. 45," the "Momento musicale for String Quartet," the "Minueto for String Quartet" and "Three Pieces of G. F. Haendel transcribed for String Quartet."

One thing that strikes me about the music is its rhapsodic lyricism, its Italianate flavor, is ability to straddle romanticism, post-romanticism and even an incipient impressionism without a lot of to-do or overweaning musical pride. Martucci's lyric gift is in evidence throughout, but it does not seem to seek to draw attention to itself. There is an unforced flow of invention to be heard throughout, thanks in part to Ms. Semeraro and Quartetto Noferini's nicely understated readings. What is romantic about the music is generally allowed to emerge without the gushing of overly effortful emotive outpourings. And in the process Martucci sounds ahead of his time.

This is no doubt not music that will cause us to redefine radically the development of modernism. Nevertheless it is music of a distinct appeal, the presence of an almost endless font of creative form weaving. Listen to the first disk and its attention to the first trio and the quintet. They certainly sound fresh in the hands of the performers. They have a delightful sincerity about them, and that's true of the entire set.

I do recommend this to you, whether you wish to trace the development of modern Italian music or simply wish to experience some beautifully lyrical chamber strains, or both.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Natalia Andreeva Plays Preludes & Fugues, Bach, Franck, Shostakovich

Everybody knows and appreciates, for the most part, how Glenn Gould played fugues. Fast as it goes, exciting, dynamic. But of course there are other ways. Natalia Andreeva, the Russian pianist who gave us a beautiful volume of Ustvolskaya's complete piano works (see index box above) comes through with an album of  Preludes & Fugues (Divine Art 25139) where the emphasis is on a kind of meditative, poetic cast, grandly unfolding without hurry, studied but extraordinarily direct.

I've been listening closely to this album, and the more I hear it, the more I get inside of her way. Covered here are two preludes and fugues by Bach (one in C Sharp minor,  BWV 849, and one in A minor, S. 462, originally for organ, transcribed for piano by Liszt), plus Franck's "Prelude, choral et fugue," Shostakovich's "Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op 87 No. 20" and finally, as a bonus, two "Etude-Tableau" by Rachmaninoff--one in G minor, Op. 33, No. 7, and one in C sharp minor, Op. 33 No. 8.

The  minor key, as seen above, predominates, and Ms. Andreeva makes much of this with a mesmerizing clarity and spirit, very gravitas. She gives us every reason to appreciate her approach. She allows each segment much space to breathe, much to say by drawing out every passage with that Russian, singing quality we have in some of the best pianists from there.

It is an album to hear repeatedly, each time you uncover more detail and subtlety. It is a marvel of poetic interpretation. And a very coherent selection of gems as well.

Hurrah for Natalia Andreeva! Highly recommended.