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Monday, March 30, 2015

Daniel Lentz, In the Sea of Ionia

I've said this before but the force of it continues to stay with me as I sample the classic music of our current era. That is, that we've entered a stage of stylistic pluralism. Just as abstract expressionism dominated the art world in the '50s, high serialism did so in the modern music world during that period. Other than the sheer eclecticism inherent in a world class museum or the mainstream repertoire performance circuits, the modern-postmodern scene has subjected us to a number of styles that includes high modernism, revival styles, minimal and new tonalities as well as noise-music, and avant new music which relates to avant jazz and improvisation. All of this exists simultaneously. There is no one arbiter of taste and dominance. Though the art market and prices fetched in galleries and auctions do give us an indication of currency for the visual art market, contemporary music has less generative abilities in its mechanically reproduced and live incarnations so it's even harder to judge on any stylistic hegemony, but there appears to be no one style at the forefront now.

This as I've said isn't such a bad thing. The building blocks of music remain the same, more or less, with melody, harmonic movement (tonal or otherwise), rhythm and timbre serving most composers of today. The question then is what does a new composer choose to do with these elements? Ex-minimalist Daniel Lentz gives us his own take with a collection of solo piano pieces, In the Sea of Ionia (Cold Blue 0042), featuring Aron Kallay as the capable and sympathetic performer.

It's music in a tonal vein, with rhythm entering into the picture as a significant factor, sometimes with a motoric regularity taken over from the minimalist days, sometimes rather romantically rubato but the chord sequences decidedly more contemporary than romantic. Four works/suites are featured: "51 Nocturnes," "Pacific Coast Highway," "Dorchester Tropes" in four movements, and "In the Sea of Ionia."

Lentz here does not quite fit into the Cold Blue "radical tonality" mode that one often finds on that label. His is a music of performative density that does not go in an ambient direction so much as stay within the rhythmic mainstream established via minimalism and its popular-rock-world relation and then, yes, a more rubato approach akin to pianism as we often understand it over the past 200 years. Messiaen occasionally comes to mind as a reference point for the harmonic movement but in no obvious way

There is enough inventive and varied in the program that the attention does not lag. These are perhaps not masterpieces of our age but they are legitimate and distinctive enough that you feel that Lentz continues to be his own man out there. A worthy stylist who may have a couple of masterpieces left in him, certainly. And in the meantime there isn't a banal passage to be heard, in spite of the tonal accessibility of it all.

I find this album stimulating and enjoyable. Recommended.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Howard Hersh, Angels and Watermarks

Once again, the happy happenstance of my visibility as a critic-reviewer has allowed me access to a new voice on the compositional scene that I would probably not have been exposed to otherwise. Today it is Howard Hersh and his music for piano and chamber orchestra and solo harpsichord, Angels and Watermarks (self-released).

The keyboard soloist is Brenda Tom, who sounds quite excellent in the central role here.

The "Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments" in three movements opens the program. It has a post-romantic, post-modern piano part filled with motion and unexpected tonal twists and turns. The chamber orchestra parts surrounding the solo statements are well conceived and work together to create a very lively post-modern, post-minimal synchrony that features trading off of motival elements throughout. The piano part has real grit and the entire work has very memorable melodic dash. The performance is sturdy with Ms. Tom leading the way definitively and the chamber ensemble giving us a fine idea of the total sound at hand in the work.

From there we go to two works for solo harpsichord, "Angels and Watermarks," a five movement suite, and "Dream," the ten minute closer.

Both give us a more intimate side of the composer, music that sounds well on the harpsichord, music with neo-classic/vernacular contemporary flourish. The music is inventive and modern yet hearkens back to a time when the harpsichord was a central fixture of a musical world much as the piano was for the years of the salon and beyond.

None of this music is cliche, all sounds fresh. Maestro Hersh adds a distinctive turn to all the music heard here. He is an original and without at all taxing the listener gives us something to follow with pleasure. I look forward to more from him!

Recommended.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Felt, Striking Works for Solo Piano, Various Composers

You can depend on Navona consistently to introduce new and lesser-known composers and their works. Today, an anthology of solo piano, Felt, Striking Works for Solo Piano (Navona 5987). Eight works by seven composers are here to explore. We get one a piece by Matthew Durrant, Rachel Lee Guthrie, Amir Zaheri, Richard Pressley, Byron Petty, Ron Nagorcka, plus two by Robert A. Baker. The performance duties are shared by Karolina Rojahn, J. Bradley Baker and Robert A. Baker.

Musically we are placed in terrain that straddles an open modernism and an open post-modernism. There is much in the way of dramatic gesture and expressiveness. Beyond that there is an open sky within which anything is possible and everything potential.

If you have a sense of adventure these well-executed performances of the ultra-new will capture your imagination. Lively music! Recommended.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

William Bergsma, The Voice of the Coelacanth

In the old LP days one might often be introduced to a composer because he (or she) occupied the obverse side of an album that you bought for what was on the other one. That happened to me once or twice with the composer William Bergsma (1921-1994), I believe a Turnabout and a CRI LP (which I still have around here someplace). The music impressed me to a point that I sought out other recordings of his music. Time moved on and at his passing in 1994 I was not aware of much coming out of his. Yet he left an impression that made me jump at the chance to hear a newly issued recording of his music, The Voice of the Coelacanth (Centaur 3371). It is an anthology of chamber works for small ensembles and solo piano, spanning a time period between 1943 and 1983.

These are mature, modern works in a kind of neo-classical style somewhere between Stravinsky and Hindemith, that somewhere being Bergsma's own turf. Thematic memorability and drama are embedded in harmonically advanced terms.

We get "The Voice of the Coelacanth" for violin, horn and piano (1981), which has a dramatic turn that makes especially good use of the power and dynamics of the horn. "Changes for Seven" (1971) for woodwind quintet, percussion and piano has a rather dreamy yet declamatory sort of gestural quality and again makes the horn stand out from the ensemble at points.

Then there are two suites for solo piano, "Three Fantasies" (1943, rev. 1983), and "Tangents" (1951), both of which cover a lot of moods and modes in impressive ways.

The performances are very decent, sometimes very, very decent. In the end you are exposed to a good batch of first-rate Bergsma, who indeed still deserves to be heard and comes through with plenty of excellent music to contemplate.

Any student of 20th century American modernism would profit by getting to know this disk--and derive some genuine pleasure as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Isaac Albeniz, Piano Music 7, Hernan Milla

Isaac Albeniz (1850-1909) was a prolific and important Spanish composer. His early years were devoted to writing in a salon style. By around 1885 he began to combine traditional Andalusian Spanish elements into a quasi-impressionist style, ultimately writing masterpieces for solo guitar such as "Granados" and the very beautiful piano suite "Iberia." He was a supreme melodist and an inspired craftsman. Outside of specialists most of us haven't heard but a fraction of his lesser-known works.

Naxos in their ever-admirable goal of completeness have gotten up to a seventh volume (Piano Works 7 [Naxos 8.573160]) of solo piano pieces. Since I have not had as much experience with the lesser-known Albeniz I thought I'd check in with the latest volume. Does it stand up compositionally to the highest heights of Albeniz in this peak years? The answer is no, not quite. But then I would say, "but still..." because there is much to like on this disk.

Pianist Hernan Milla does the honors as the pianist on this volume. And he plays with a sympathy and flair that seems just right for the music.

Essentially the volume covers two substantial works, the suite of miniatures "12 Piezas caracteristicas, Op. 92" (1888) and the "Sonata No. 3, Op. 68" (1886). These are a product of the very beginning of his most inspired period, ending with his death in 1909. So we get a good variety of styles, some more in a salon or later romantic vein (the latter especially so on the "Sonata"), some with the first fruits of his Andalusian-influenced neo-impressionist style. The miniatures for all that are very much worth hearing. The music can be charming, enchanting, contentful or somewhat less so. There is nothing mediocre to be heard and ultimately much of it comes as a breath of fresh air.

I would not quite say that this volume is indispensable. I am sure there are earlier volumes more in line with the best-of-the-best. Nonetheless he is never less than accomplished. And there are moments of true brilliance to be heard here.

Anyone with a deep interest in the Spanish scene of the early modern period should probably have it all. "Iberia" is a must-have for anyone, but I have no doubt there are lesser-known treasures in the first six volumes as well. This one comes through like the first rays of spring sunshine. It is not yet a full-bloom Albeniz but very much a budding one. The listen is an excellent one.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Carl Nielsen, New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6 "Sinfonia semplice"

Just this morning before I woke up I had one of those dreams that seemingly sets the tone for things to come. This past week, no doubt about it, was one of the very worst I have experienced. Illness, the death of one of my best friends, the impending worry of the wolf at the door. The dream went back to the time when I worked in the advertising department of Prentice Hall (now known as Pearson Publishing) which then as I guess now was one of the major publishing companies of higher education books. The then head of the department was a visionary creative soul, one Diane Kuppler-Weaver. She believed strongly in a creative approach to everything. But this dream was crazy even by her standards. We had made our money on the big books in the months before. Now it was time for "crazy month." The products we were assigned to promote were all off-the-wall, paper records, books made out of sandpaper, oddly folded books with elaborate papercuts...and somebody had taken my desk and replaced it with an old medieval banquet table, cut a hole in my wall and placed in the space a strange looking mask. We were given oddly painted strips of paper to promote, all kinds of crazy stuff, everybody was wearing costumes. It was all insane. Diane explained that the higher ups had realized that if we all worried about making money, instead of good ideas, that we and our entire economic system would collapse. So mad month was all about having fun doing what you loved, doing what you were good at, not worrying about the consequences but filled with faith that our creative abilities could remake our world from the nasty spirited, mean thing it was to a creative one where all did well by doing things well.

I woke up and knew it was the right message for me today. And maybe for all of us. As it happens the last and best two symphonies by Carl Nielsen, No. 5 and No. 6, were up for the classical blog as a concluding volume in the definitive set by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert (DeCapo 6.220625). They happen to fit right in with the idea that you do best by being yourself, your best creative self. Carl Nielsen was in the end no leader of modern schools of composition. He most waywardly and perhaps even obstinately insisted on being himself, neither a screaming modernist nor an old-fashioned conservative, making music that was not supposed to be beautiful, but "characteristic," as he told a musician who was performing one of the symphonies in those first days after the player asked him, "Is this supposed to be beautiful?" Not beautiful. Characteristic.

Paradoxically Nielsen's 5th and 6th are two of the most beautiful symphonies of the 20th century. But they redefined beautiful to fit Nielsen's vision of it. They are monuments in Nielsenism, titanic structure in motion, beautifully expressive but not sentimental in the Victorian drawing room sense of beauty, with hot house flowers, over-stuffed furniture and a ton of gimcracks and geegaws. Everything fits together beautifully. There is not an ounce of excess and the passages are all rather totally selfless in the most self-filled way.

I've long cherished both symphonies. As for the Sixth, I have been happy with a number of versions over the years. For the Fifth an old LP by Jascha Horenstein and the New Philharmonia has long been the at the top of my list. Some of that was for the part of the symphony where the snare drummer was instructed to do his best to interrupt the orchestra with an all-out assault, something that appealed very much to my classically trained percussionist sympathies. The snare drummer for the New Philharmonia sounds like Gene Krupa gone mad, hitting rimshots and causing a real ruckus. The New York Philharmonic's snare drummer is much more in the rudimentary, let's just march the hell off of here mode.

But in all other ways Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic carry the day, with carefully impassioned readings of both symphonies that are surely to my mind definitive. It is a moving disk, something a Nielsenite will cherish and a newcomer will get the best possible way into the works. This is by all means a triumph! Now I must find a middle ages banquet table and cut a hole in the wall. Nielsen is the 20th century model of a go-to-hell originality. Only he didn't go to hell. What better time than now to be reminded of what counts?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Alan Hovhaness, Symphony No. 48 "Visions of Andromeda," Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz

Some composers from last century were so prolific that we are still trying to catch up with their output. That is most certainly true of Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) who wrote 67 symphonies and countless other works. I had the good fortune to discover him early in my listening days, I believe it was 1966 or 1967, when I happened on a cutout of his music that had a strong influence on me and remains one of my favorites among his recordings.

Hovhaness throughout his career has made use of his Armenian heritage but also of the music of the East and Asia as a whole in fashioning works that are tonal but more world-inspired than looking back to the classical tradition, though counterpoint and other classic devices are usually present.

Gerard Schwarz and the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra have devoted themselves to a program of Hovhaness scores that have not been often heard. The centerpiece, his Symphony No. 48 'Vision of Andromeda' (1982) (Naxos 8.559755) enjoys its world premiere recording here, and there are two other works that are nice to hear, the early "Prelude and Quadruple Fugue" (1936, rev. 1954) and the "Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings" (1980).

"Symphony No. 48" has an Eastern sort of mystical quality that is not untypical of the composer. There is an Eastern minor-mode tonality that has some affinities with Eastern Orthodox Chant as well as lots of orchestral color and contrast. It is well-crafted, inspired and performed with the spirit and verve one might expect from Gerard Schwarz.

The "Prelude and Quadruple Fugue" has all the earmarkings of typical Hovhaness, yet the early provenance of the short work shows a perhaps more thoroughly neo-classical stance than the typical mature Hovhaness. It is fascinating and well-wrought.

The "Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings" holds great interest for the Hovhaness acolyte. It too is filled with Eastern qualities. The solo part is played well by Greg Banaszak. As with many classical sax players he retains a strongly present vibrato that takes a bit of getting used to. Once one does there is much music to appreciate.

This would not be my first choice if I were to choose a handful of indispensable recordings, but at the Naxos price it is well worth having, even if you have not been previously exposed to the composer. Schwarz and the Eastern Musical Festival Orchestra give us their all and the music is of a uniformly high quality. I for one am glad to add it to my Hovhaness collection. Buy it with no qualms. It is well-done.