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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Terry Riley, Dark Queen Mantra, Stefano Scodanibbio, Gyan Riley, Del Sol String Quartet

Without a doubt composer Terry Riley has been one of the most important composers of our time, creating the iconic "In C," arguably the most influential and appreciated composition in the rise of so-called minimalism, and then going on to follow his own muse, ever broadening his outlook in a body of works that retain high interest and embrace innovative approaches to this day.

Dark Queen Mantra (Sono Luminus 92215) presents the title work written in 2015 for guitar (Gyan Riley) and String Quartet (Del Sol String Quartet). It is followed by the 1983 quartet work "The Wheel and Mystic Bird Waltz" and Stefan Scodanibbio's "Mas Lugares (su Madrigal di Monteverdi)" (2003).

The Scodanibbio "Mas Lugares" combines minimalist motor-propulsive forwardness with starkly effective re-presentations of a Monteverdi Madrigal. It is a deft intermingling of string color and repetition versus through composition.

Riley's "The Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz" stands midway between "In C" and the title work. It is motor-rhythmic and cyclical-repetitive in a much looser way than Riley's earlier work and that of typical proto-minimalism. It is clear hearing the 1983 composition that he had well begun to distance himself away from the trance underpinnings of the initial music yet still remain melodically vibrant in his special way.

The "Dark Queen Mantra" of the title further realizes the movement away from the trance-inducing early work that we still hear vestiges of in the "Waltz." "Mantra" turns it further towards a continual development and a horizontal melodic openness. It positions itself mid-point between quasi-Indian modal form and classical-structural considerations. It is fully freed from the trance-over-time change of "In C." It does all of this in brilliant ways very much characteristic of Riley's overall lyric thrust. It is a work of honest yet baroquely complex beauty!

When we weigh all three works on this CD program we come away satisfied that some important post-minimalist music has reached our listening selves in enlightening and pleasurable ways. Kudos to all concerned!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Horatiu Radulescu, Piano Sonatas & String Quartets I, Stephen Clarke, The JACK Quartet

Apparently there have been shifts in the outlook of Romanian composer Horatiu Radulescu (1942-2008): his Romanian period, the "plasmic music" of his post-Romanian days (during the first part of his residency in Western Europe), and the final phase, which worked at times within more traditional forms, albeit in very personal, idiosyncratic ways. The latter is represented in the first volume of Piano Sonatas and String Quartets I (Mode 290). The JACK Quartet and pianist Stephen Clarke nicely do the honors for the program.

For this initial installment we hear the "String Quartet No. 5, Op. 89 'before the universe was born'" (1990-95) in first recording. Its sprawling sonic panorama of harmonics is hardly traditional except as accommodated to string quartet instrumentation.

The piano works heard here on the other hand at first have a more straightforward simplicity about them. The Romanian folk-like diatonicism-plus disarms on the "Piano Sonata No. 5, op. 106 'settle your dust, this is the primal identity'" (2003). Yet it is something more than a primality.

The "Piano Sonata No. 2, op. 82 'being and non-being create each other'" (1991)  is more overtly modernistic though at times folk-like as well. There is a post-Messiaenesque deliberateness that nevertheless has Radulescu's personal stamp on it, as it were. The first movement has widely spaced, powerful sonarities. Movement two uses mixed modalities and a held right pedal to represent "Byzantine bells." The third movement has an ostinato in 15 with fragments of earlier works quoted in the right hand. 

All-in-all this is a most promising start to the series. All the works have a special idiomatic quality to them, an around-and-back melding of modernism and a whispy suggestion of archaic antiquity as filtered through Radelescu's musical vision.

I recommend this one warmly to you.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Komitas, Piano and Chamber Music, Mikael Ayrapetyan, Vladimir Sergeev

Komitas (aka Komitas Vardapet) (1869-1935) was Armenia's principal composer of the modern period. Khatchaturian may be better known, but then he was as much Russian as Armenian in style. Komitas thrives on a recent release of his Piano and Chamber Music (Grand Piano 720). The music has a strong traditional Armenian identity, minor-modal in its special way.

Mikael Ayrapetyan takes the piano chair and acquits himself well on the solo piano works, which consist of "Seven Folk Dances" (1916), "Twelve Children's Pieces Based On Folk-Themes" (1910), Misho-Shoror" (1906), and the World Premier recording of "Seven Songs for Piano" (1911). Vladimir Sergeev joins on violin for the World Premier of "Seven Pieces for Violin and Piano" (1906).

Komitas had humble origins as the son of artisan parents in Turkey, He early on distinguished himself as a singer. In his subsequent tutelage as a seminary student he became familiar with ancient Armenian chant, hymns and folksong heritage. He was ordained as a monk and went on to compose the works that we remember him by. The Ottoman pogram against Armenians so unhinged him that he ended up in a psychiatric hospital where he resided until his death in 1935.

Like Bartok and Khachaturian he envisioned the national folk legacy of his people as a vast repository of  cultural value and sought to create pedagogical works for children as well as more complex art music works that deeply reflected on folk elements.

The album at hand gives us a well chosen sample of both kinds of works, the "Twelve Children's Pieces" standing on one end of the spectrum, the "Seven Pieces for Violin and Piano" at the other.

It is a program of great beauty, well played. Anyone who loves Armenian music (perhaps via the music of Hovhaness) will gladly appreciate this one, as well as anyone interested in folk inspired modern classical. It is a real treasure!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Robert Schumann, Carnaval, Fantasie, Chi-Chen Wu

Some solo piano works have been so ubiquitous, so often performed, that it takes a pianist with a different vision to shake you out of the near torpor you may experience. Of course there are often enough excellent reasons why a work is so widely played and heard. Still, it takes something special to wake you up. That is the case with pianist Chi-Chen Wu's recent recording of Robert Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9 and Fantasie, Op. 17 (Musica Omnia 0705). We've encountered Ms. Wu before as the pianist on Schumann's Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano (see review on these pages for March 1, 2016). She most impressively established her Schumann interpretive credentials on that disk.

Tackling the "Carnaval" and "Fantasia" is something perhaps more of a challenge. So many notable and well-endowed pianists have gone there before. What can be left to say?  They could be played still louder, still faster, or still slower, with still more rubato, all that I suppose. What would be the point? Chi-Chen Wu has all the technical endowment one would expect for a successful rendition of these repertoire staples. Yet the emphasis is not on dazzling the hearer with fireworks.

Instead Ms. Wu gives us a very focused vision of Schumann by getting everything exactly right, and doing so in a most musical manner. There is a requisite passion, yes, but it is harnessed to the harmonic-melodic sequence with perhaps a slightly more Apollonian core than has been standard practice. Not that the renditions are cold, far from it. They are poised, balanced, emotive but precise.

I would venture to say that this disk is an example of Schumann's Schumann. It very much zeroes in on the notes themselves, singingly and surgingly, but never as a kind of spectacle.

It is an example of a more classicistic reading of Romantic piano, perhaps. For that is shows us Chi-Chen Wu the powerful yet centered pianist devoting great care to bringing alive the music. Less so the gesture of its realization. It brings us out of Van Cliburnian-Liberace-esque showmanship, brings us closer to the source.

Bravo! Warmly recommended.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Kevin Raftery, Chamber Music, Heath Quartet, Animare Ensemble, Berkeley Ensemble

A new post takes us into the creative musical mind of living US-born composer Kevin Raftery. Chamber Music (Metier 28569) walks us through some meticulous and committed performances of four of his works, all highly advanced harmonically and expressive in a lineage that goes back to Alban Berg in its affective qualities yet manages to convey a very personal take on classic high modernism.

Like Ives he composes and at the same time has had a foot in the commercial world, as a Project Manager. He nowadays sings in the new music oriented London Chamber Choir, plays bassoon professionally and is Music Director of the Richmond Concert Society.

His opening "String Quartet No. 1" (2012) was written in memory of his friend Richard Oake, whose love of the string quartet was so pronounced that Raftery decided to plunge into a quartet of his own, even though he previous had avoided it because of those many masterpieces in the idiom and the idea to follow with another work seemed pretentious. Raftery holds his own however, with a highly developed presence, a kind of elegiac revery contrasting with a dramatic dynamic emotive stridency that is very nicely realized by the Heath Quartet.

From there we go on to two works well played by members of the Berkeley Ensemble. "First Companion" (2012) calls for clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello; "Pleasantries" (2011) is for oboe/English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon. Both combine seriousness of purpose with a kind of whimsicality, movingly so.

The "'Friedhof ' Quintet" (2011) is perhaps the most stunning and introspective-expressive. For flute, harp, violin, viola and cello, it revels in the possibilities of the instrumentation to haunting results. The Animare Ensemble brings the music to life in glowing ways. The instrumentation and its handling lends itself to a sort of post-impressionist delicacy and fragility that stays in the mind and created a hushed mood of expectation that delivers its profound content with absolute candor.

There is beauty and character to these works. Raftery shows himself as a gifted exponent of high modernist chamber art. I come away from this program impressed and rewarded. Anyone with a liking for the intimacy of the chamber form and the sophistication of the classic modern expansiveness should readily take to this music as I have.

Very recommended.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Transient Canvas, Sift, Amy Advocat, Matt Sharrock

Some music just lays right from the first hearing. Further listens fill in the details and yet the initial impression sticks with you. I feel this way about the duo Transient Canvas and their album Sift (New Focus FCR 190). It is a full length recital showcasing the bass clarinet work of Amy Advocat and the marimba of Matt Sharrock. The two instruments together make for a deep and rich sonance realized especially well by the fine artistry of the two.

Five new music composers contribute one composition each. You may or may not know of these craftsperson-artists. It does not matter because each has something to say and brings out the color and dramatic potentialities of  the instrumentation.

Each work embodies a literal intent. The respective composer explains what that is in the liners. I paraphrase here. The title piece"Sift" (2014) by Daniel T. Lewis puts in musical terms what remains of a resolve when long subjected to struggle, and the exhaustion and collapse that can follow. Tina Tallon's "Dirty Water" (2014/16) is her tribute to Boston and an allusion to but not quotation from the Standells' old pop-rock hit.

Chris Hughes and his "Vestibule III" (2013) comes to grips with an ever shifting transition between contrasting stylistic worlds, something all who follow new music modernism in its current incarnation can sense as part of where we are now.

John Murphree's "Purge" (2013) creates in analogic musical terms a casting out of what once was or even still is important.

The longest and perhaps most ambitious of the works concludes the program, namely Adam Roberts' "Nostalgic Variations" (2015). It contains within the main theme and its variants a middle path between "saccharine expression" and on the opposite pole "irony and rejection of emotion."

The experience of the music itself understandably transcends or deepens the impact of any given composer's intent. This is contemporary music that neither rejects a modernist stance nor does it replace it with something wholly other. It is a series of cogent and fascinating vehicles that allow the duo and their very singular instrumentation to flourish and establish an immediate present-day identity. It is in the process a very absorbing and even exhilarating program all new music adepts will gravitate towards appreciatively, I would think.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Boyd Meets Girl, Rupert Boyd, Laura Metcalf, Music for Cello and Guitar

Two artists of stature, a mix of the contemporary modern and the classic, that is what goes into Boyd Meets Girl (Sono Luminus 92217).  It is a sort of cute, flip title that presaged to me something light. However the music is delightfully presented, much more than a bonbon between meals. (Not that anyone I know eats bonbons.Yet get the point.) It is weighty without being insistently so. This way it can provide atmosphere or a good deal more if you listen seriously.

The Boyd is classical guitarist Rupert Boyd. The "Girl" is cellist Laura Metcalf. Both have a beautiful sound and the technique to match. And the blend of the two makes for a special confluence.

It is the brightly variegated repertoire that helps make the program especially pleasurable. We have more or less lesser-known contemporary works in Jaime Zenamon's "Reflexoes No. 6," Ross Edwards' "Arafura Arioso," Radames Gnattali's "Allegretto Comodo." Then there are the more familiar Astor Piazzolla "Cafe 1930: and Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel."

And then for the more venerable classic side we have four of Bach's "Two-Part Inventions," Faure's "Pavanne, Op. 50," de Falla's "Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas." And to cap it all off there is an arrangement of Michael Jackson's song "Human Nature."

It is the artistry of the two that ultimately makes this program stand out, that and the Boyd-Metcalfe arrangements for guitar and cello (as applicable) and the open-ended adventure of the program itself.

If you have expectations about the wonderful sound of cello and classical guitar together, they are met with absolute style and grace in the twin sonarities of Boyd and Metcalfe. More than met, really. Boyd Meets Girl is one of those fortunate intersection where we hear bells as much as they do.

A program that will appeal to a wide swath of listeners. It will do so with artistry at the highest levels.