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Friday, June 24, 2016

Sorabji, 100 Transcendental Studies, Nos 72-83, Fredrik Ullen

The latest volume of Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988) and his monumental 100 Transcendental Studies (Nos 72-83) (BIS 2223) is upon us. Eventually pianist Fredrik Ullen will be recording all 100 of the cycle. This latest installment gets us most of the way there. I've covered an earlier volume on these pages (look up the review in the index box if you would like to read that). My exposure continues here, I am happy to say.

There is no easy way to characterize the cycle, except to say that it is phenomenally difficult music to play, that it has the DIY exploratory expression of Sorabji's piano music in evidence with all kinds of twists and turns, and that it is one of the 20th century's most daring and exhaustive cycles, a masterpiece of technical-expressionist modernism with some incredible rhythmic and melodic-harmonic complexities and a great variety of approaches that relate sometimes to one another, sometimes to other piano repertoire, and to a complete gamut of personalized style possibilities.

We get in this volume for example a theme with 100 variations (75), a perpetuum mobile (77), an impressionistic tone poem (78), a study in fourths (83) and a maelstrom of accentuated gestures set against a whirlwind of notes (82). All 100 were written between 1940 and 1944, but this is music that seems to go beyond time, embracing a kind of eccentric modernism that gives us a Sorabji for our present-day sensibilities, beyond his own time surely, yet also paradoxically filled with the gigantism-expression of the late romantic era and the ultra-progressivity that flourished then in spite of the social traumas that were ripping the world apart.

Fredrick Ullen is a pianist endowed with the considerable technical acuity these works demand, but also the poetic imagination that is always key to Sorabji's music. He is the ultimate Sorabji interpreter, surely, or one of the primary ones at any rate.

The superb performances match the daring and iconoclastic music one-for-one. These are thrilling works, played with fire and commitment. Should you get all 100? If you can swing it, based on the installments I have heard. Meanwhile this is a great volume to start with. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Almeida Prado, Complete Cartas Celestes 1, Aleyson Scopel

Music is a container of meaningful sound. Modern solo piano music is a series of such containers, often filled with complex gestures, sonorities, timbres, tone syntax that in the best of circumstances speak to you in a language you understand but have not been privy to previously in quite this way.

That is very true of Almeida Prado (1943-2010) and his "Cartas Celestes" series of piano pieces. Aleyson Scopel has embarked on a recording of the complete cycle, with the Complete Cartas Celestes 1 (Grand Piano GP709) currently out as the inaugural volume. For this first offering we get Nos. 1, 2, 3 and the World Premiere recording of No. 15.

It is a virtual musical mapping of the heavens and so understandably has a hugely open and expansive modernist feel to it all. Prado studied initially in Brazil with Guarnieri but then with Boulanger and Messiaen in Paris. The music has the rhythmic complexities of Messiaen, jaggedly asymmetrical, but also perhaps even more abstracted than typical of Messiaen, and less tied perhaps to melodic continuity at times. But then you might get a canonic contrapuntal passage that appears and gives us a brief glance backwards before venturing forth again into the remote stratospheres of relational sounds. All of the music exemplifies Prado's "transtonal" approach, which is neither quite tonal, atonal or bitonal but all at once, I suppose you could say.

It is music of high modernist adventure, played impeccably and expressively by Aleyson Scopel. Volume one comes through with but four of what appears to be a monumental piano opus, ambitious and dramatic, singular and vividly gestural.

I am much taken with the music and its performance. Any of you high modernist devotees out there will undoubtedly respond to this music, and may find yourself wanting to hear it all. Prado comes across as a major figure in the music, surely. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

John Rutter, Psalmfest

The late jazz composer-saxophonist icon Ornette Colemen once remarked something to the effect that "there is no such thing as bad music, only bad musicians."  Now in terms of jazz that may have great truth. In terms of classical, there most certainly can be bad music that no great performance can save. On the other hand there is much excellent music out there that can be negated with lackluster or uninspired performances. John Rutter (b. 1943) and his choral-orchestra work Psalmfest (Naxos 8.573394) strikes me that latter way. It is enjoying its World Premiere recording (revised version) here by the Choirs of St Albans Cathedral and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Lucas. It is music that is undeniably written to be performed well and enthusiastically. (You might say that of many compositions, maybe even all, but Psalmfest hits me as especially of that nature.)

Thankfully the amassed choirs, soloists, and orchestra give us an exceedingly beautiful reading of the work. The music has a distinctly English feel to it--Vaughan Williams is somewhere lurking in the wings, perhaps. There is a kind of accessibility to its melodiousness that would perhaps fall a bit flat in lesser hands. The "Psalmfest" (1993) and the related shorter works "This is the Day" (2011), "Lord, Thou hast been our refuge" (2008), and "Psalm 150" (2002), all included here, are a joyful, ecstatic group of works that shine brightly thanks to the beautiful singing of the St Alban Choirs and the nicely articulated orchestral performances, and of course the poetic joy of the Psalms of David.

This is not precisely modernist music, but it is music with a traditional 20th century lineage yet a contemporary rhapsodical feel. There is a kind of sureness, a mastery of the forces at hand that marks John Rutter as special. The music is very moving and I respond to these performances readily and most pleasurably. Anyone taken by the choral medium I believe will feel the same way. So I do heartily recommend this disk.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

4 Contemporary Sound Poets, Tomomi Adachi, Owen F. Smith, Duane Ingalls, Jaap Blonk, Surround Sound Disk

Today, something out of the ordinary: a 5:1 surround disk with a lengthy program featuring 4 Contemporary Sound Poets (Pogus 21083-2). We hear the electroacoustic compositions of Tomomi Adachi, Jaap Blonk, Owen F. Smith and Duane Ingalls. All make excellent use of the surround medium (both AC3 and DTS are options, which will enable you to hear the full sound on virtually any DVD or Blu-Ray player). The human voice in its extended sound making possibilities is at the center of most works. Avant vocal execution and electroacoustic transformations are the order of the day.

All the works presented are cutting-edge contemporary avant, ranging from collaged density to soundscaped ambient. Experiencing them in 5:1 audio staging is sometimes quite exciting and alway revelatory.

Keep in mind that the visual component on the disk is functional--you get some photos with the menu choices, but the works are presented with a nearly blank screen (with a thin stripe of color arranged across the top). That is all fine--this is an audio disk and you are there to listen.

Like all avant new music you may find yourself liking some works more than others, but that is a personal thing. Each work is its own adventure and has the ring of authenticity and newness about it.

I found the experience riveting. I believe all you who embrace the high modern-postmodern camp will find it all fascinating. And the surround sound is fantastic throughout.

Highly recommended for the adventurists out there!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Avram Il'yich Khachaturian, Symphony No.2, "The Bell," Yablonsky, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra

The catastrophic upheavals that marked Germany's invasion of Russia during World War II led to some of the most memorable symphonies of that era. There is Prokofiev's turbulent Symphony No. 5, Shostakovitch's markedly dramatic Symphony No. 7, and not as well known, Khachaturian's Symphony No. 2 "The Bell". The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky gives us a stirring reading of that symphony in a recent recording (Naxos 8.570436) and I have been listening to with pleasure.

Khachaturian (1903-1978) describes the symphony as a "requiem of wrath, a requiem of protest against war and violence" (liners). The nickname of the symphony derives from its tubular bell part that enters the matrix several times during the work. It is, given the subject matter, very expressive and unsettled music, with much dramatic impact, certainly worthy of taking its place with the Shostakovitch and Prokofiev symphonies of the period, though with perhaps not quite the thematic brilliance of the others. Nonetheless it is a completely satisfying work, an extroverted dirge that cries out in protest with the full resources of the modern orchestra.

A bonus on this disk are several excerpts from Khachaturian's "Lermontov Suite" (1959), which he initially wrote as incidental music for Boris Lavrenyov's play about the playwright-poet in 1954.  It is perhaps not quite at the level of the symphony, but nonetheless gives us some good moments and does not detract from the overall effect and high level of performance on the program as a whole.

Russian modern aficionados will doubtless want to savor this fine recording of a somewhat neglected symphony. It is very worthwhile. Kudos to Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rachmaninov, Etudes-tableaux, Moments musicaux, Boris Giltburg, Piano

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) did so much to extend and personalize late-romantic Russian expressionism that one listens and ignores the reality that his style in his later years was firmly anachronistic. Most of his piano solo and all the concerto oeuvre require exceptional virtuosity and poetic interpretive brilliance from the soloist for it all to come through properly--and a really worthwhile performance puts the music in a nearly timeless realm. So it really doesn't matter that Rachmaninov was in the end not completely of his era.

This is very much true of the solo piano blockbusters Etudes-tableaux, Op. 39 (1896) and the Moments musicaux, Op. 16 (1916-17). It is difficult to do the works justice, but we find an ideal exponent in Boris Giltburg, who has recently recorded both in a fine new release (Naxos 8.573469).

Both demand torrential outpourings of melodic-harmonic dynamics, motor-sensory finesse of the highest sort, complete control over the widely contrasting passages, an intelligent and musical use of rubato and a climactic sense of impassioned pianism. There are one might presume many who can make of the music something comprehensible, but very few who can take it to the highest level of exultation, to give it a liquidity of flow, to bring out the widely expansive arcs that the composer envisioned, the shifting moods and colors of each movement.

Boris Giltburg is one of those few. He gives us a tremendously exciting take on both works. He clearly was made for this music. And the music itself in all its profundity and Russo-dash becomes clear to us, with the deeper inner meanings coming forth out of the extraordinary virtuosity.

Giltburg triumphs and thanks to him so does Rachmaninov. For all those who have had their doubts about the brilliance of these works, seek no further. Boris lays it all out for us, gives us a Rachmaninov we ordinarily do not get to hear, not like this. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Elliott Sharp, Tranzience

The artistic mastery of Elliott Sharp over his long career has taken primarily three shapes: as an innovative guitarist in blues rock (Terraplane) and avant jazz contexts, as a jazz composer-bandleader, and as a new music composer. Today's CD, Tranzience (New World Records 80778-2), concentrates on the latter, with four compositions that show Sharp's innate brilliance in realizing significant form in original and aurally captivating sound sculptures.

Each work was fashioned for a specific chamber configuration: "Tranzience" (2013) for the JACK String Quartet, "Approaching the Arches of Corti" (1997) for the New Thread Quartet of soprano saxophones, "Homage Leroy Jenkins" (2008) for clarinet, violin and piano, and "Venus & Jupiter" (2012) for the chamber ensemble Either/or with Elliott on electroacoustic guitar.

A great deal could be said of each work. The liners, written by Anthony Coleman following an interview with Sharp, touch on some salient aspects of the works presented. The "low throb" is one aspect--from its presence in bodily rhythms, to its transformations in the form of "dronalities" that morph and become multiple discrete pulses and/or a single organizing pulse to which everything relates.

Another aspect of his music relates to the dichotomies and oppositions between pulse and contrasting explosive disruptions and noise, a vividly bipolar set of tendencies that have played out between and against the Downtown Music minimalist composers and the Downtown avant improvisational artists. Sharp has tended to be associated with the latter artists yet his music includes both aesthetic polarities. The new music composition of his mature phase goes beyond improvisations per se but does not feel a one-to-one affinity with typical compositional trends either.

The influence of Fractal Geometry, the Fibonacci sequence and other mathematical perspectives inform his music but the decaying industrial dystopia and the idea of disruption play a balancing act in his music as a whole as well. Elaborate order and expressively intentional chaos join hands and are part of the same impetus, you might say.

All these considerations and more play themselves out in varying ways in the four compositions that make up the album. Neither the organizing principals nor their intentional disruption are the point of this music in the end, it goes without saying. It is the play of musical-intentional multiplicities that Elliott Sharp's musical inventions adhere to and overcome, and the sheer sonic beauty of the multiform expressed in personal terms ultimately holds sway with our committed listening beings.

And for that the performers and Elliott's varied compositional dialogues are in the end irresistibly melded into a music of aural significance that we enter into readily and willingly. That is to say that anyone who embraces the modern, advanced zeitgeist should find the music bracing and pleasureably stimulating, intelligent yet cathartic, articulate yet wholistically driven, brilliant yet refusing to stay put.

In other words, this is music of the modern now by a composer-artist of great importance to the now in which we live.

Get this!