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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

John McCabe, Composer, Pianist, Conductor

English composer John McCabe (b. 1939) makes music with a very personal stamp, modern sounding yet in a continuity that suggests earlier styles without seeming neo-classical. I came across his Visions, Choral Music and posted positively on it here last December 14, 2012. Now we have a goodly assortment of works in a new anthology composed of recordings originally released on LP or cassette and now for the first time joined together on a single CD.

Composer, Pianist Conductor (Naxos 8.571370) gives us an orchestral work and solo piano music composed between 1965 and 1969, then closes out with an orchestral work from 1985. As the title suggests McCabe is the pianist for the three solo piano works included, which are "Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt" (1967), "Capriccio (Study No. 1)" (1969) and "Sostenuto (Study No. 2)" (1969). All three works are dynamic, dramatic and occasionally call for a virtuoso ability that McCabe delivers quite readily. They have substance and dash. The Liszt "Fantasy" sounds like a potential classic.

Then there are two orchestral works, his "Symphony No. 1 'Elegy'" (1965) and "Tuning" (1985), the latter with McCabe as conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland; the former with John Snashall conducting the London Philharmonic.

"Tuning" makes use of a large orchestra for a kaleidoscope of modern tonal color soundscaping with mystery and texture. It shows you a very adventurous side of McCabe that pleases while orchestrationally giving off a brilliance that makes you wish there was more like it. Another CD? The Youth Orchestra may not be the Vienna Philharmonic but they give us a clear idea of the work.

His "Symphony No. 1" has three movements and an evocative quality a bit less avant than the later work but very well conceived and compelling in any event. Once again his orchestrational creativity comes to the fore.

Altogether this anthology gives you much to appreciate. It presents you with a snapshot of a composer we would do well to hear more from. Recommended for completists in the new music contingency but also for those a bit less avant-oriented, as the music fits its own world that partakes of 20th-century tradition and avant qualities equally and satisfyingly. Here is an English composer of merit.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Messiaen, La Nativité du Seigneur, Tom Winpenny

My own personal list of the best organ composers of the 20th century would place Messiaen at the very top. I am not alone in that feeling. He left us a body of organ works like no other. His combination of spirituality, his keen sense of what the modern cathedral organ can do and his compositional brilliance make for striking music that is modern yet partakes in the grandeur of the French Organ school as beginning with Franck through to his era.

La Nativité du Seigneur (The Birth of the Saviour) was one of his comparatively early works, written in 1935, yet it is also a masterpiece. There have been a number of recordings. Tom Winpenny gives us a new one (Naxos 8.573332). Along with the great Naxos price, this version is an excellent one. The old Candide LP anthology of organ music played by Reynaud if I am not mistaken included the final movement of this work. It introduced me like so many others of my generation to Messiaen's organ music. Judging by that movement alone Winpenny is very competitive. And based on my ears alone the rest of the performance is sensitively and passionately realized, very much characteristic of what Messiaen should sound like.

The work in its entirety is filled with color and contrast, mystery and triumph. Like any of the major Messiaen organ opus works it is "spooky" in its way, modern in ways often typical of early Messiaen yet with a special feel for how the organ can envelope listeners in a world of sheer sonic sensuousness.

I would not hesitate to recommend both the composition and Winpenny's performance. In fact I entirely do. Any student of 20th century organ, of Messiaen, or of modernism in general should have it. I am glad for it myself!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Chris Paul Harman, After JSB-RS, Works for Keyboards and Percussion

Modern works that pay homage to or utilize the music of past masters in an overt manner are not of course unprecedented. I can think of Stravinsky's tribute to Gesualdo for one. There are others. The practice goes back to pre-modern times.

The key is in the doing of course. Canadian composer Chris Paul Harman (b. 1970) transforms source materials from Bach's "Chorales" and "Two Part Inventions," and also two piano cycles by Robert Schumann on his After JSB-RS (Naxos 8.573303) in a series of five chamber compositions for piano(s) and percussion. The music that results is memorable and very interesting, modern with at times bit of a bite so to speak, atmospheric in ways that do not copy but are in the lineage of Messiaen and Crumb perhaps, and quite inventive.

It is the sort of thing where the music is so transformed that if you didn't know the sources you would mostly not notice them, so thoroughly re-thought is the music. The five works span the recent period between 2006 and 2013 and as such show the composer in a very productive mode. Central to the music is the standard piano, augmented by at times an untempered piano, toy piano, and prepared piano, which gather in various configurations in "After Schumann," "371" (this one especially vibrant in sound), and "After Schumann II." Each piece gives you a transformed coloristic palette of tones that belies their origins and creates beautiful patterns largely outside traditional harmonic-melodic classical form.

The "Concertino" from 2008 is perhaps the most ambitious, a short, four-movement work with a fascinating series of moving lines played by the McGill Percussion Ensemble emphasizing the vibrant color of bell-chime sonorities with celeste, piano and such.

"Der Tag mit seinen Licht" is one of the more stunning works. Scored for piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/recorder, violin, cello and percussion, it uses a core motif that then extends outward into beautifully expanded continual modulation with disjointed diatonic intervals that when put together do not fall easily into a key center or linear harmonic continuity. It is based on the Bach "Chorale" of the same name. It most certainly is a joy to hear.

This disk offers up some refreshing yet rather profound sound-forms that gives us a tonality at times highly extended and always as an alternative to classical form. Most times this is music that should be accessible to many in its poetic qualities and generally sonorous result. Yet the confirmed modernist will get much pleasure following the colors and permutations. The performances are excellent, too.

Chris Paul Harman is a composer to follow. This is a great starting point.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

John Cage, Ear for Ear, Cage Ensemble Berlin

In terms of sheer sound, there is more than one John Cage. There are many. Some of his works are dissonant or noise-sound oriented; there is the "ethnic" Cage of the prepared piano pieces; there is the diatonic Cage who shows a Satie influence; and there are vocal works that have a sort of ritual diatonics. There are other Cages, too. But for now that's enough.

Cage Berlin Ensemble Hamburg has a new collection out of his music entitled Ear for Ear (Telos Music 179). It is centered around music that has as its basis a text. Most of these feature vocalizing of that text; one is a piano work that was influenced by a text.

Much of the music here has enjoyed a good number of recordings. That is in part because much of it is very accessible. Some are more rare. All are well performed in his recording.

"ear for EAR" (1983) for two voices is, as the liner notes state, similar to "Litany for the Whale" (1980) for a single vocalist, in that both have a chant-like diatonicism based on syllables. "ear for EAR" is not as often heard as "Litany" but they go together well.

"Three Songs" (1933) for voice and piano is one of Cage's first compositions. Based on texts by Gertrude Stein, it shows you a proto-Cage in a mostly diatonic vein, closer in approach to the "new music" of the time yet a thing already apart.

"The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs" (1942) was especially well sung by Catherine Berberian. It has percussive parts where the singer strikes a closed-lidded grand piano with his or her hands. It has an ancient Asian ritual feel with text from Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake." On Berberian's untimely death Cage wrote a very brief sequel to the work in her memory, "Nowt Upon Nacht" (1984), which is more dynamic but based on the same premises. It is good to hear both works together.

"ASLSP" (1985) for piano solo is also based on "Finnegan's Wake" but is purely instrumental. It has eight brief movements and is more typically jagged in Cage's abstract style. It has a quietude though that makes it fit in with the program well.

"The Year Begins to be Ripe" (1970) is based on Thoreau and very briefly follows in the ritualistic mode of "Widow."

The last work represented here is "Experiences 1 + 2" (1945-48), which maps out for two pianos his more "ethnic" pentatonic style and has a sung part based on the poetry of e e cummings.

That is the run-down on what you will hear. The vocalists and pianists give us beautiful versions of the pieces, perhaps a bit more reverent and earnest and perhaps also a little less "new agey" as some recent versions of this music. And then you also get some rather rare pieces.

This is the "mellow" Cage that potentially appeals to a very wide audience. But it is hardly for that bits of fluff. This is as serious as any Cage work is in intent. The sound is melifluent in at times archaic ways but always intriguing. Cage Ensemble Berlin give us this music with real devotion and focus. And so the results are rather outstanding.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Leonardo Balada, Symphony No. 6 "Symphony of Sorrows"

Looking back to the experience of his music through the years, there is something about Spanish composer Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) that now hits me. That is, that I've enjoyed just about every orchestral composition I have heard of his, yet in the end I do not have a clear feeling for what to expect from him stylistically. Part of that of course is that his music continues to evolve and change.

The new Naxos release of orchestral works is a case in point. It features his Symphony No. 6 "Symphony of Sorrows" (Naxos 8.573298) (2005), a "Concerto for Three Cellos and Orchestra, 'A German Concerto'" (2006) and his "Steel Symphony" (1972). The first two works enjoy here their world premiere recordings.

The composer himself remarks in the liner notes that a key to his music is his use of avant garde techniques to forward emotional expression. That does help to explain in part. And you can hear that pretty clearly in these three works.

"Symphony No. 6" is in remembrance of the innocent victims of the Spanish Civil War. It begins with a rather anguished expression by the orchestra, then takes up an almost martial rhythm that is tonal and polytonal at once.

The "Concerto for Three Cellos" features Michael Sanderling, Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt and Hans-Jacob Eschenburg in the expressive solo roles. It too begins expressively, then segues into poly-tonal music that has a regular cadence, perhaps also march music that is both avant and banally carnivalesque, "folksy." It concerns the long path of reconstruction in Germany after two disastrous wars and an evil dictatorship.

The earlier "Steel Symphony" (1972) gives us Balada's impressions of Pittsburgh as a result of his residency there. It is a vibrant work that represents the turmoil and bustle of the steel factories and does it well. It is a molten cauldron of sound at times, fittingly expressing with brilliance the full tilt of production.

All three symphonies have plenty of substance and vivid contrasts. If I still feel that I have yet to wrap myself around Balada fully, it is probably as much a matter of taking stock via a more-or-less full opus listening survey that I find worthwhile in gauging a composer. The performances here are stirring and fully detailed. Each work is tackled by a different orchestra: the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra under Jesus Lopez-Cobos for the "Steel Symphony," The Galacia Symphony Orchestra under Lopez-Cobos for No. 6, and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Eivind Gullberg Jensen for the Concerto.

For those first experiencing Balada this may not be the ideal recording. Perhaps the Naxos recording of the "Caprichos No. 1 & 5" (see review of March 14, 2012) would be better. Nevertheless the three works represented in this new release intrigue and expand our appreciation of Balada in worthwhile ways. The "Steel Symphony" alone is worth hearing. But the newer works open up vistas for us as well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Matthias Veit & Henning Lucius, Klavier zu vier Handen (Piano Music for Four Hands)

When an anthology of works contains music of different style periods, either it is primarily a showcase for the artists involved or there are similarities in the works that go beyond the periods represented, or both. In the case of Matthias Veit & Henning Lucius's Klavier zu vier Handen (Telos Music 063) it is mostly a matter of artistry. The five works presented on this disk have in common the four-hand piano configuration and the artistry of the duo, which is considerable. The works themselves do not fit neatly into either period or stylistic affinities. They do not clash, certainly. But they give you variety and show off the interpretive skills of the pianists. And the sequence of the works flows nicely, too.

Max Reger's "Sech Walzer op. 22" gives us an example of the composer somewhere between his late-romantic and his neo-classical style with brevity and charm but no sentimentality. Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) and his "Ironien op. 34" is a more modernistic, brittle sort of multi-part work, with a ragtime-modern final movement. Both contrast nicely.

The program moves on to Gordon Sherwood (1929-2013) and his "Sonata in Blue, op. 66" in its recorded premiere. The music uses the blues scale tonality for more classical aims, in a way like Gershwin, only not as romantic-expressive as, say, the latter's "Rhapsody in Blue." And that is well, since it convinces on its own terms.

Debussy's "Ballade" (1890) is extraordinarily lyrical and characteristic of the composer in this period. The four-hand version is especially full.

We end with Mendelssohn's "Duett: Andante und Allegro vivace assai op. 92" from of course the previous century. It is a work in every way worthwhile and quite Mendelssohnian, and a contrast to the previous music in the program in its pre-modernist charm and slightly more virtuoso stance.

The sensitive interplay of Veit and Lucius makes it all work. The Reger, Schulhoff ad Sherwood are well worth hearing in these fine renditions; the Debussy and Mendelssohn well done. In all the program has great variety, shows us five excellent examples of the four-handed art, and showcases the very musical approach of Veit and Lucius. Bravo!

Monday, January 19, 2015

PRISM Quartet, People's Emergency Center, Music by Matthew Levy

The PRISM Quartet is an all-saxaphone ensemble dedicated to traveling the fine line between advanced modern jazz and new music. Their double-CD set People's Emergency Center (Innova 890) gives us 12 compositions by leader-tenor saxophonist Matthew Levy. They venture far into territory that isn't well-charted and we are fortunate that Levy's music gets such a thorough showcasing here.

The core unit is Levy, Timothy McAllister, soprano sax, Zachary Shemon, alto sax, and Taimur Sullivan, baritone and bass saxes. Added to the quartet depending on the composition are guest artists, some jazz luminaries in their own right, such as Jason Moran, piano, Jay Anderson, contrabass, Tim Ries, soprano, Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto, Ben Monder, guitar, plus drums, percussion and what-have-you.

Every work has its own trajectory; jazz, jazz-rock, new music all intermingle deftly under Matthew Levy's acutely vital compositional conceptions. There is room for improvisation at times as there are also times when a rhythm section drives things.

A detailed description of every piece would be tedious as they all have their own bold way. Suffice to say that the quartet is pivotal and made extensive use of for modern voicings and textures which the special guests supplement and extend.

It is music to satisfy the adventurous soul open to new fusions and extended "third stream" sophistications. It stands out as some very excellent new jazz-new music no matter which area your ears are most accustomed to, if not of course both. This is a group with a long-standing devotion to new sounds with an outstanding track record. I reviewed their 20th anniversary CD Dedication on these pages last January 10, 2012.

Important music from an ensemble I hope we will hear much more of in the coming years...