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Friday, April 28, 2017

Michael Byron, The Celebration

Post-modern minimalism can go a number of ways these days. It seems to me that at times works can be guilty of form-formulaics at the expense of  content. When that is the case, I generally find myself to be an unsatisfied participant in the listening sojourn. The building-blocks of content must be of musical interest or the whole edifice founders. Some out there either cannot or will not fashion suitable foundations.  Pardon the mixed metaphors, but they leave us with a sometimes elaborate meal concocted out of unflavorful, mundane, collectively unpalatable ingredients. We leave the table in haste, even in some distress, searching for a bromide.

This sometimes becomes all the more problematic when the work incorporates texts. The way of Einstein on the Beach worked well because of the abstraction of the textual matter and the flow of lines, but it may not necessarily serve as an ideal paradigm. Sometimes the paradigm can be applied in ways that are disastrous. Different Trains by Reich is a very successful alternate paradigm involving speech inflections but again this probably should not be indiscriminately applied to other textual and tonal material unthinkingly.

The problems I speak of are decidedly inapplicable with Michael Byron and his The Celebration (New World 8077872). It is a long and involved work for baritone and piano quintet. Thomas Buckner handles the sung-spoken part with the highly musical ways he is known for. The FLUX Quartet and Joseph Kubera on piano realize the instrumental parts with a steadiness and motility that brings out the beautifully hypnotic qualities of the score. I've reviewed a number of Byron's works here before (see search box) and in every case I am left with a smile and a dream-like state. He is a force for a sort of pastoral presentness that seems always to reach me and do good things to my mood.

Primary to the current project is the setting of Anne Tardos' poetry, introspective, probing, existential in a sort of down-to-earth practicity, if you will pardon the term, a poetic description of life as she images the experience. There are two zones of musicality that maintain themselves throughout. The quintet explores a radical tonality of shifting pentatonic and diatonic flow centers, with repetition and variations of the primal tones overlapping at contrasting velocities, the piano cascading with variable attack points like the contrastingly different speeds of multiple drips from the eaves of an old barn during a rain shower. The strings create a slower unfolding in a more legato manner. The patterns and pitch center are sectionalized, so that periodically they abruptly or somewhat more smoothly change the frame every so often. Byron does this so well we quickly surrender to the moment and flow along with him.

The vocal part floats atop the wash of natural-like processual sounds, alternately reciting and singing the poetic texts, a largo-esque melodic flow changing key according to the modulations of the quintet. The text unwinds in real time, perhaps wisely avoiding repetitions that could potentially end in the gibberish of the "cow cow cow jumped jumped over the moon moon moon" sort.

We readily are carried along with the musical current in a naturalistic way, somehow experiencing the experience as a microcosm of poetic life itself. The work immediately establishes itself and after a few listens stays with you as something rather profound and distinct.

It is cosmically lyrical music, one-of-a-kind, with a beauty that lingers on in its impression even after there is silence.

The Celebration makes its way into your deep memory-experience recesses and attaches itself to your own flow of being. That is a remarkable thing.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dutilleux, Symphony No. 2 "Le Double," Orchestre National de Lille, Darrell Ang

If I could come up with only one word for Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and his music, it might be lasting. Here in the present we experience the orchestral works as entirely modern, on the edge of such a world, speaking to us as a voice that is original, unexpectedly familiar yet strongly independant, by a consummate master of the orchestra with as much fertility of idea as brilliance of execution.

A good place to start, or to continue, depending who you are, is the recent Orchestra National de Lille/Darrell Ang recording of  Symphony No. 2 "Le Double" (Naxos 8.573596).

The Second, written 1955-59, is a prescient blend of thick yet relatively translucent impasto--multi-rhythmic voicings and jazz-like punctuations.

On the disk are two additional works. The "Timbres, espace, mouvement" from 1976-78 as revised in 1991 is a remarkably  mysterious evocation of Van Gogh's Starry Night, a bracing panorama of sound showing us the Dutilleux command and poetic disposition of parts. It does for sound what van Gogh did for paint, only perhaps feeling in its unfolding more like today than van Gogh's yesterday, timeless yet fixed in Dutilleux's own later-day idiom. The composer describes it as "a longing for an infinity of nature." It sounds like that.

The final work in the program consists of the ever unfolding series of ten episodic moments in time, the "Mystere de l'instant" of 1989. A "play of mirrors and contrasting colors" runs past our hearing beings in ways somehow both personal and modernistically universal.

The coupling of the three works with the readily rewarding interpretations of Darrell Ang and the Orchestre National de Lille decidedly makes this a most attractive offering. There may be other versions of the Second that might have a slight edge on this one, but the three-work package and the Naxos price bring this to us as a valuable and energizing choice. If you have the Second, there are the other two works as well and more the better for it. If you don't know any of these works and want to explore Dutilleux's brilliance with an optimum seating in the hall of your music system, here you go!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Josquin du pres, Josquin Masses, Di dadi, Une mousse de Biscaye, the Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips

The irreplaceable sublimity of Josquin du pres (c. 1440-1521) in the polyphonic Mass setting is something one must live with to truly appreciate. It cannot be easily or adequately described by words. In the end it is the sensuous experience of the sequence of parts and their movement together that fills the heart and mind of the hearer and leaves an unforgettable mark on her/him, provided one listens sympathetically. There is a sense of inevitability when one hears the best of them. Josquin had an extraordinary ability to make his polyphony seem like an ideal of possibilities.

So in the hands of The Tallis Scholars, a talented and angelic vocal ensemble who exemplify the best practices in early music performance today, we hear two Josquin Masses: Di dadi, Une mousse de Biscaye (Gimell CDGIM 048).

"Di dadi" is remarkable in that Josquin's creative intent was inspired by the throwing of dice. Beyond that point of extreme interest these two masses are at the highest levels of craft and art.

The performances are very moving. The music sublime. Nothing more need be said.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Crossing, International Contemporary Ensemble, Donald Nally, Seven Responses

Donald Nally, the choral ensemble the Crossing and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) present seven contemporary modern works responding to Buxtehude's seven cantatas from the oratorio Membra Jesu nostri patientis santissima. Seven Responses (Innova 912 2-CDs) is the result. It comprises a collection of seven beautifully wrought works that combine the-old-and-the-new, the impressions of the baroque labyrinth of Buxtehudian polyphony combined with an adventurist new music world.

The composers are Caroline Shaw, Hans Thomalla, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, David T. Little, Santa Ratniece and Lewis Spratlan. Each expolores a sonic universe that combines the vocal nuances of the Crossing and the instrumental evocations of ICE in fascinating ways.

There is no question as you listen as to where the stylistic contemporaneousness resides: it is decidedly not a serialist or atonal realm of the last century, though there are at times bold modernisms to be heard. It is a tonal, sound-color oriented development that embraces the ancient and the modern in a newfound synthesis that appeals while it dishes out a wealth of musical nutrients.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Egidio Romualdo Duni, Les Deux Chasseurs et la Laitiere, Accademia dell'Arcadia, Roberto Balconi

Today's recording serves to remind us once again that the annals of baroque and classical composers are filled with now unfamiliar names that history has partially erased from our collective memories, yet who may prove substantially worthwhile when we hear one or more of their works. Take today's example, that of Egidio Romualdo Duni (1708-1775). Les Deux Chasseurs et la Laitiere (Brilliant 95422) is something very attractive, a one-act comedy from 1763 that managed to garner a lasting and enthusiastic audience response in the opera world at the time, but now is almost completely unknown.

The late baroque, nearly classical jauntiness of the work lives again thanks to the very game performances here by some distinguished soloists and the Accademia dell'Arcadia under Roberto Balconi.

The arias are bright and hard-lined in their immediacy. The orchestral interludes sparkle happily.

I am beguiled by the music and performances. Duni knows exactly what he is going here, and he is near-perfect in his execution. By definition, this is lighter than air. That makes for a delightful diversion. You understand how audiences found this music enchanting. With a little effort we can recapture that experience here in 2017, just by listening. There is a ravishing airiness that is as likable as a meringue made well. And no possibility of emotional indigestion!


Friday, April 21, 2017

Paul Reale, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2, Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands



The realm of solo piano music has been especially fruitful in the modern era. The movement from Debussy, Ravel and Satie to the present is marked by many brilliant signposts. An unexpected find is in the music of Paul Reale (b. 1943), as heard in the recording I was fortunate to receive, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2: Paul Reale Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands (MSR Classics 1612). This is more-or-less neo-classic modernism, with perhaps the presence of Stravinsky and Hindemith as precursors, but reshaped and reinvented with a pronounced musical imagination.

What we have entails a continuation of Volume 1, the solo piano music of Reale that came out some time ago (and I have not heard). There are eight works in all on Volume 2, world premiere recordings of some choice and articulate pianism for four hands-one piano, two pianos and one short number for two pianos eight hands.

A blow-by-blow description of the music would differentiate what for me comes across as a unified stylistic whole. It is something best experienced not a la carte but as a full, exemplary, consecutively construed feast of neo-classic cuisine, so to speak.

I cannot find any fault in the performances and in the end Paul Reale brings us a convincing group of compositions that provide substantial fare and impress in their ultimate musicality. Hear this one if you treasure the modern pianoforte and want something new.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Versus, Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, Irena Portenko, Volodymyr Sirenko, Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra

My old composition professor reacted to my expression of admiration for Prokofiev with the thought that he was compromisingly derivative of Stravinsky. We agreed to disagree. To this day I hear of course the influence, but the differences are like Beethoven to Schubert. Sure, there is a debt but there is growth and distance that marks each as a creative light as much tabula rasa as akin in a line of succession. And the music "in the air" of early 20th century Russia, or more precisely the zeitgeist of the turbulent unfolding of history of the times helps explain the expressionist affinities between the two composers as much or more than some putative sort of one-way transmission of inspiration. If you do not agree maybe you have not spent enough time with the Prokofiev opus. No matter.

Today's CD reminds us of that and of another debt Prokofiev held in the early Russian modernist flowering. It is a recording of the remarkable pianist Irena Portenko and the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra under Volodymyr Sirenko in Versus, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (BGR 417). This underscores another debt and another tabula rasa response--here, between the clangorous paradigm of the Russian romantic piano concerto as created by Tchaikovsky versus a wholly modernist clangorous brilliance from Prokofiev. Each work is a masterpiece of its kind. 50 years separate the two. They could not be more different in their use of a melodic-harmonic idiom that defines their trajectory, and yet there is something very Russian about both in their pronounced lyrical effusion.

But for a moment we should think about the Stravinsky-Prokofiev nexus and differentiation. The year 1913 marks the debut of Stravinsky's game changing "Rite of Spring." It also is the very same year that Prokofiev completed the "Piano Concerto No. 2." A 1920 fire in Prokofiev's apartment destroyed the orchestra parts, but happily his mother had retained a copy of the piano score. Prokofiev set about reconstructing the piece in 1923, and that version is the one we still hear. It makes no difference in the end but the final version most definitely has the affinity of the dissonance and some of the savagery of "The Rite of Spring." Only of course it is a masterfully moving example of Prokofiev at his original best. Do we care in the end how the version we hear is in a parallel realm to the "Rites?" Sure, but we cannot find anything here that shows any kind of copying or mimicry. The work is pure Prokofiev, one of his early triumphs, a work that stands on its own as tragic, passionate, bittersweet, prototypically brilliant in the relation of the piano part to the orchestral response.

And I am happy to say that this version is graced by the absolute fire and tenderness of Irena Portenko's performance, something that makes the music breathe and live for us as well as it ever has. That too is the case with conductor Sirenko's ability to get all the expressive saudade out of the Ukrainian National Orchestra that we could wish for. It is a remarkable performance, probably the best I have heard!

The Tchaikovsky is extraordinarily well done, too. It is instructive to hear both concertos back-to-back in this program. I will leave it to you as to the insights one may glean from the comparison.

Suffice to say that Portenko is an interpretive giant, the orchestra tuned to each work with articulate, heightened enthusiasm, and in the end you (if you are like me) are very, very glad of it.

No self-respecting modernist should omit a close interaction with the Prokofiev. Of course the Tchaikovsky is essential fare for the Russophile. And the performances are marvelous!