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Friday, May 22, 2015

Havergal Brian, Symphonies Nos. 6, 28, 29 and 31, New Russia State Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Walker

There are composers of recent times who have lurked in the shade of neglect for too long, whose music was not as a rule widely heard until now, who lived much of their lives in some obscurity, whose output was not in keeping with the prevailing trends. One of those certainly is Havergal Brian (1876-1972). His 32 symphonies until recently were virtually unknown, with the exception of the monumental giganticism of the first few, which were performed by esteemed conductors like Boult and available as a few very obscure LPs.

Incredibly enough, after completing his 6th Symphony at age 72, Brian went on to write 26 more from that period until his death, along with operas and other orchestral pieces. Naxos has been filling us in (thankfully) with a cycle of the works. Today we get the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker playing Brian's Symphonies Nos. 6, 28, 29 and 31 (Naxos 8.573408). Nos. 28 and 29 are first recordings.

So these are a sampling of those late works. Brian began as a long-formed English late romantic in an era when it wasn't unheard of to work in the style, though at the time he was aside from Elgar one of the very few English composers who intently took on the mantle of the last of the romantics. Elgar of course was no Mahler and he did not push romanticism to the edge as much as he reflected a Victorian restraint along with a vital fluency and passion that played against itself. Brian was more overtly expressive, less bridled.

His music, as much as I am familiar with the middle period, was never contemporary in the same way as Vaughan Williams or Walton. It remained in many ways anachronistic yet not derivative.

So here we are with some of the many "last" symphonies. They are of modest length compared to the early works, ranging from a 13-minute 31st (in one movement) to the multi-movement 29th, which clocks in at 23 minutes. With the temporal brevity is a compactness of expression that Brian's music had evolved to. There are long thematic developments at times (the third movement of the 29th, for example) which have an almost Schubertian thrust, yet on the whole he is much less the epicist of his early late romantic days.

Granted there remains the high expressivity often enough of his earlier work, but there are neo-classical elements peppered through the works and his originality is much more at hand. It is not "modern" music as a whole, yet it sounds chromatically contemporary and fresh.

If you seek analogies of the period, he perhaps shares with Sibelius the natural propensity to work in older tonal territory, yet like Sibelius he does it in his very own way. You might say that his music has a sterner cast than Sibelius, and the chromaticism sometimes comes much more to the forefront, as a kind of English Max Reger, though these are only loose approximations. Brian remains at this later period a symphonist of real stature, original in ways we may not expect of music written in 1948, 1967 and 1968. We tend to think of classical music teleologically, noting in admiration that so-and-so was the prophetic precursor of the so-and-so school. Brian was not that. If we forget about teleology though, he speaks to us truly, no matter what came before, after or during.

The four symphonies programmed on the current release give you a listening experience both fascinating and rewarding. The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Walker furnishes us versions that sparkle with sonic vitality. There is enthusiasm to be heard and a full commitment to the stylistic particularities. Could there be better performances? Perhaps. But we are well served by these recordings and get the full impact of Havergal Brian and his tremendous burst of energy in the last decades of his life. And that's what counts.

It's remarkable music in all these ways. I am very glad to experience it and am left with a much greater appreciation for Brian's music than I had previous to this. Recommended!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Keith Jarrett, Barber Piano Concerto, Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3

Keith Jarrett celebrates his 70th birthday with two releases. One a solo piano disk, Creation, which I covered on the last post. Today there is the second, a live recording from 1984-85 of two seminal modern concerto works that give us a look at Keith at a peak in his classical performance style, before a skiing accident injured his hands and he was no longer able to play at the highest edge of virtuosity.

Lucky for us these live versions were recorded before that calamity and we get his versions in all their considerable splendor and smouldering, blazing fire. They are available now as an ECM New Series release (B0022987-02) Samuel Barber Piano Concerto, Bela Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3.

As live, unedited recordings they do not have the extreme polish of a carefully done and redone studio date, but they make up for in excitement what they may lack in absolute perfection.

Two orchestras and conductors handle the accompaniment; for the Barber it is the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken under Dennis Russell Davies, for the Bartok it is the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazuyoshi Akiyama. They give us warm and committed versions of the works, not absolutely perfect given the live situation, but no discernable clinkers either. They enter into the spirit of the music as called upon, and they do it admirably and satisfyingly.

The center of attraction remains rightly with Jarrett and his artistry. Both works are superb modern 20th-century examples of the concerted art and Keith does wonders with the piano parts. The Barber is less played than one might like, but is a masterpiece, with devilishly difficult pianistic demands and a very modern sound, Barber at his best. The Bartok is familiar to most and gets more than its due.

Jarrett is breathtaking much of the time in his flowing, nuanced yet pyrotechnic performances of the works. He immerses himself in both works and yet manages to convey his incredible personal pianistic magnetism, which bursts forth with triumphant energy and lyricism in both cases. Repeated hearings bring home the brilliance of his way with the works.

The program ends with a solo improvisation from the Japanese concert. It is rather brief but glowing and a very fitting end to this welcome addition to the Jarrett discography. You may well have versions of both concertos. The Jarrett versions are so distinctive that they should be heard nonetheless.

A triumphant trip on the musical time machine we get. I can't imagine a better birthday tribute to the master pianist, when coupled with the latest solo improvisations on the release Creation. These two along with a previously unreleased classic trio date from the earlier years (see my Gapplegate Music Review article from several months ago for that) gives us a three-pronged semi-retrospective/introspective on virtually all that Jarrett means to us. I am very happy to have them to hear in the years to come and I imagine you will, too.

But by all means get this one regardless of whether or not you follow the more jazz-oriented side of his artistry. It is golden.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Keith Jarrett, Creation

Pianist Keith Jarrett recently turned 70. To celebrate the milestone he has released simultaneously two albums, one a recording of two concertos I will discuss soon, the other an album of solo piano improvisations called Creation (ECM 2450 B0023013-02). I deal today with the latter.

Jarrett, along with Cecil Taylor, has been monumentally influential for his solo improvisations throughout his career. His excursions in this realm have had a wide acceptance with the music-loving public; they have been critically acclaimed; they have given us a dimension of improvising which incorporates both his jazz background and classical elements. The earlier examples had much in the way of spectacular technique. The later period is less concerned with that realm, the playing stripped down to communicate directly with more somber or reflective expressions of a concentrated sort. That is especially true of this one.

Creation, consisting of nine segments drawn from six 2014 concerts, were personally selected by Maestro Jarrett and form a cohesive whole. These are nocturnals, meditative, introspective, balladic, harmonically centered and melodically improvisatory. They seem a natural outcrop of Jarrett's increasing attention to balladic standards but also to a sort of original equivalent to aspects of Chopin or later Liszt, both beautiful and somewhat stark.

If I post this album here on the classical page, it is because these improvisations should be of interest to the classical listener as much as those who come to his music out of his jazz background.

Those who know a good deal of his work in the solo realm over time will know that the later period often enough marks a more reflective Jarrett, less exuberant, less the spectacular virtuoso, less ecstatic, more somber, yet still extraordinarily lyrical.

And yes, this aspect of Jarrett the artist has nearly always been a part of his style, but never before in such concentric terms.

There are extraordinary moments on this one, to be sure. I won't say that there are intimations of mortality in some direct sense, but of course as you get older you lose friends, colleagues (Paul Motion and Charlie Haden in the last few years, for example) and if I detect a eulogistic tone in this music, it may be because I know how loss can color one's life after a certain stage, and the realization that your own life may not last another 100 years. But I do hear a kind of looking back, a feeling of coming through much and a reflection on it.

It is a beautiful album. It is not what earlier Jarrett solo improvs dwelt on at such length, but that is what sets it apart and distinguishes it from them.

There is still inspiration, much of it in these segments. If you approach it with no expectations (as much as that is possible) you will no doubt fall under the spell of the moods and be transported as I have been to a magical realm. This is introspective later Jarrett at its best. He remains brilliant in new, perhaps more subtle ways. Bravo!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sebastian Fagerlund, Darkness in Light, Hannu Lintu

In musical terms, how does a post-modern/modern composer capture the world we live in today? The answer would have to be "variously," since there is no one way. One answer comes from the relatively young (b. 1975) Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund, as heard in a recent release of orchestral works, Darkness in Light (Bis 2093). Hannu Lintu conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Two works are presented, both written this decade, the "Violin Concerto 'Darkness in Light'" (2012) featuring violinist Pekka Kuusisto, to whom the work is dedicated, and the purely orchestral "Ignite" (2010).

Both are atmospherically lucid, modern sounding with expanded tonality and orchestrational brilliance, but post-modern I suppose with their original forays into more tonal moments. The immersion in tonality shares with the harmonic-modernistic passages a complex, turbulent dynamism that can acquiesce into more open, reflective passages in dramatic arcs.

Kudos to violinist Kuusisto, who handles the solo part with a sort of heroic distinction, and to conductor Lintu, who brings us the special qualities of Fagerlund's music with sympathy and real presence.

Fagerlund opens us to a world complex and perhaps less unified or monolithic than it is dramatically ever-unfolding. In a way Fagerlund sums up the modern sound-coloristic orchestral legacy while moving forward simultaneously into his own personal sphere of sonics.

The music is well-written, well-performed and complexly vibrant. Fagerlund bears close listening, reveals himself in real and repeated listening time rather than awes you with visceral fireworks. That he will please the careful auditor is doubtless the case (at least with me), but he presents music on his own terms, not pandering for easy recognition and applause but single-mindedly seeing a path into the future we may follow at will with considerable reward.

A figure to be heard, Fagerlund most certainly is, and a composer doing excellent work which I can only hope will continue to grow and excel in the coming years.

Very recommended.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hans Werner Henze, Violin Concerto No. 2, Il Vitalino raddoppiato

When a composer is still living and producing new music, the complete picture continues to reveal itself. Even after passing that composer may have works that are not universally known, so that we cannot be sure we know all the avenues and byways of style that the person has traversed. The latter is true of Hans Werner Henze, who left this earth in 2012, but whose later works are still being absorbed by the new music community, myself included.

Today's recording is a revealing example of this, with two compelling concerted works for solo violin and ensemble, both written in his mature phase. Peter Sheppard Skaerved plays the solo part in each case, and also serves as conductor for the later work. We get Henze's Violin Concerto No. 2 and Il Vitalino raddoppiato (Naxos 8.573289). The Concerto No. 2 comes from 1971, "Il Vitalino" from 1977. Both are unfamiliar to me but it turns out are quite engaging and well performed here.

"Il Vitalino raddoppiato" is in an Italianate neo-baroque style, with a cycling continuo chord sequence and violin embellishments structurally similar to the various versions of "La Folia." In this case the work is based on one by Tomaso Vitali (1663-1745). It is a very colorful piece not at all typical of Henze's high modernist period, in that the continually recurring harmonic sequence is firmly tonal, and thrives in the ingenious shifting orchestrations in the chamber ensemble Longbow, principally a group of winds set alongside a group of strings. The solo violin part is both demanding and very lyrical, played beautifully by Skaerved. And the piece as a whole shimmers with beautiful shades of tone.

Henze's "Violin Concerto No. 2" is a very modern, ambitious work for of course solo violin, plus electronics on tape, bass baritone and 33 chamber players, played by the Parnassus Ensemble London with Henze conducting. This is the 1991 revised version, with a simplified electronics part, which Henze felt in the original was too cluttered. The work is both theatrical (the violinist in performance is to be dressed as Baron Munchausen) and a concerto. The baritone (Omar Ebrahim) recites-sings a poem by Enzensberger and Godel's Theorem. His role is crucial in giving us the literately dramatic-philosophical content of the piece.

It is a beautifully complex work, with the violinist conceived in the romantic embodiment, as Henze explains, "as a magician, a sorcerer with a tragic aura." The solo part is fiendishly difficult at times, but Skaerved soars in the role.

There is too much going on in this work to easily summarize. Suffice to say it is a masterwork that gives back as much as you the listener put into the hearing.

Both performances are excellent, no doubt definitive. It reveals two sides to the composer, both avant pioneer and re-composer of the historic past, both post-modernist and high modernist. It alerts me to aspects of the composer I have not yet sufficiently assimilated. These two works are revelatory. I now am awakened to his evolving, complex later period and reminded that there is still much to hear.

An essential recording, this is. Henze comes though in all his complexities. Bravo.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Webern, Vocal and Chamber Works, Robert Craft

It may well have been a day like today, sunny and spring-like, when I visited the Lincoln Center Music Library and found in the huge holdings of LPs at the time the complete works of Anton Webern (1883-1945), as recorded by Robert Craft. I was 18 and pretty well familiar with Schoenberg and Berg, his compatriots in the Viennese 12-tone school, but I was in for something special nonetheless, as Webern has a completely original brilliance all his own. As I listened to the terse, lucid, mostly miniature works one after the other I felt I had discovered one of the wellsprings of modernity. Of course this was and remains very much true.

Time went by and I eventually acquired the Craft set, then the later set of complete Webern as recorded by Boulez, but nothing matched that initial discovery. The Boulez version was excellent, but like much of Boulez's versions of other modernists, there is a good deal of Boulez's own brilliance in the interpretations, so that Webern gets squarely situated in the serialist, Darmstadtian sensibility that he had made possible. The Robert Craft versions were more matter-of-fact, perhaps less interpretive but also perhaps closer to the original Webern intentions. Over the years both versions got my scrutiny and appreciation, and both seemed necessary.

Now these many years later I discover that Robert Craft has done a second version of the Webern cycle which has been released on Naxos. I come to the music as the final volume of the series is released, Vocal and Chamber Works (Naxos 8.557516). As it happens I especially liked Craft's versions of the vocal works on the first version of the cycle, and that holds true again for the new recordings. The song sets and Webern's "Cantata No. 1" cover a wide period from 1908 through 1939.

Robert Craft's versions are if anything even more insightful here, with Tony Arnold and Claire Booth singing the parts very convincingly, the Simon Joly Chorale sounding very good, and the intricate instrumental background coming off quite well in the hands of Jacob Greenberg, piano, the various instrumentalists and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

In addition the volume covers nicely Webern's "Six Bagatelles" and "String Quartet" as performed by the Fred Sherry Quartet.

As a bonus we get the Webern revoicing of Schoenberg's 1906 "Chamber Symphony," which shows us exactly how attuned Anton was to the sound qualities of piano, winds and strings.

As always the miniaturist every-note-counts brevity of Webern is wonderfully on display. Robert Craft outdoes himself on this second go-round; nothing is unessential on this final volume of the Naxos series.

No student of modern music should be without this one. And for the Webern enthusiast the versions so effectively set out here are a vital addition to the Webern recorded repertoire.

Smashing! Get this one if you can. And no doubt the whole set is worthwhile, too.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Gustave Samazeuilh, Complete Piano Works, Olivier Chauzu

Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) is by no means a well-known name in the compositional ranks. We get the chance to hear his Complete Piano Works (Grand Piano GP 669) in a new recording by Olivier Chauzu. They span a period from 1902 to 1947, eight works in all, one a first recording.

As he grew up he came into contact with many luminary composers of the French school, who were family friends. His music reflects his own version of impressionism, at least in the solo piano works, with shimmering surfaces and at times a Scriabinesque post-romantic expressionism.

The music on this album is inspired, well-crafted and played extraordinarily well by Chauzu. Some are quite difficult and demanding for the pianist, all are poetic and very luminous, each in its own way. The music demands your respect, for it is by no means of minor quality. I came out of the hearing of this album with a good deal of admiration for Samazeuilh. You will no doubt feel similarly if you give the music a chance.

Recommended!