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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. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Emile Sauret, 24 Etudes-Caprices, Op. 64 Vol. 1 (Nos. 1-7), Nazrin Rashidova

Of the sum of unaccompanied solo violin works, those of Emile Sauret (1854-1920) are among the lesser known to the layman appreciator.  He was one of the greatest and most renowned violin virtuoso of his time. He left behind a Violin Concerto, some character pieces and some technical exercises, the most involved musically of which are the 24 Etudes-Caprices, Op. 64. Nazrin Rashidova apparently is in the process of recording them all. The first volume, covering Nos. 1-7, has recently appeared (Naxos 8.573704).

These are alternately highly demanding, then highly lyrical rhapsodic works, owing as much or more to the tradition of a Paganini as to a Bach. They are in all 24 keys, Nazrin Rashidova tackles them with heroic passion and exactitude, with a beautiful tone and satisfying idiomatic flare.

The Etudes-Caprices were published in 1902  They were dedicated to Sauret's violin student Marjorie Hayward, who had studied with him since she was 12 years old and was only 17 at the time of its publication. The pieces show no doubt his appreciation of her potential through the care that is put into each exercise.

Needless to say these are much more than mere pedagogic vehicles. There is a complexity and expressive beauty to these Etudes that make them excellent listening some 115 years later.

Ms. Rashidova brings us a ravishing interpretation for a most enjoyable program. Recommended.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Doug Bielmeier, Betty and the Sensory World, Experimental Electronic Music

The world of electronic/electroacoustic music these days is open-ended and vast in possibilities. One of the most striking recent examples comes from US composer Doug Bielmeier. Betty and the Sensory World (Ravello 7972) is a set of seven interrelated movements that play upon the richly expressive sonic worlds of drone and harmonic overtone timbers that have an extraordinary beauty, a hugely ambient, ever shifting expressive, hypnotic quality.

If my listening mind recalls the organic unity of some of Iannis Xenakis' electroacoustic environments of earlier days, perhaps it is no fluke. After all, Bielmeier studied composition with Robert Carl, himself a student of Xenakis. What may have been influential in Bielmeier's approach is so thoroughly internalized that what we appreciate in Betty feels wholly original.

At times one hears affective harmonic melodic sequences that might have come from the mind of late Mahler, had he been alive today and a practitioner of the electronic arts. But at the same time and at all times there is such a rich unfolding of ambient sound panoramas, each cluster of timbres evolving and encompassing the listener with an orchestral depth and nearly unspeakable beauty. In that way we experience timbral development as much or more than melodic-harmonic development. A sensual attention to timbre as an unfolding,  secret inner world Indian music masters have long practiced. . . sound as richly representative of deity. Bielmeier does that in his own way.

It is a music that gets an initial impetus from sustained, altered resonances, an unparalleled sonic design  that is then subjected to development and permutation. Each movement grows within itself so that the development is never into a completely "other" soundscape, is not variational in any post-Darmstadtian way, but rather hypnotically static yet ever moving within itself. There is no feeling of a minimalism per se so much as an organicity of internal presence that rivets the listener through a natural world kind of difference and sameness in dialectic balance.

I come away from this CD knowing that Betty and the Sensory World is one of the more profound electroacoustic works I have heard in a long time. Anyone who reads this will I believe be very moved by an immersion in its enchanted world. If you can dream lovely dreams, you can enter this music in the same spirit.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Edge of Time, Paleolithic Bone Flutes of France & Germany, Anna Friederike Potengowski, Georg Wieland Wagner

The idea of the archaic and new music rub shoulders on The Edge of Time, Paleolithic Bone Flutes of France & Germany (Delphian 34185). On it Anna Friederike Potengowski plays a number of reproductions of bird bone and ivory flutes discovered at sites in France and Germany. The original finds hail from the Paleolithic, some 40,000 years ago. They represent the earliest direct evidence of humanity as a music-making animal. What the music sounded like we cannot know, of course.

Flautist Anna Friederike Potengowski has learned to play four reconstructions of the flutes, working intuitively with the instruments to develop a well-conceived playing technique. She is joined by percussionist George Wieland Wagner for a number of compositions the two have assembled around the flute and percussion possibilities, plus an improvisation or two and a composition by John Cage and one by Rupert Till.

The resultant music, by imagining a distant dawn of music, is a mysterious meld of sophisticated primitivism as new music. That John Cage's "Ryoanji" does not sound out of place among these works tells us much, that a primality clears us from the residue of 1000 years of classical tradition and jettisons us forward into a kind of rediscovery of our putative roots.

The flute work by Potengowski involves a technical triumph, plays upon the complex sonic possibilities inherent in the deceptively simple constructions of wood and bone. And who is to say she is wrong to put so much artistry into the playing? We cannot know how good any given Paleolithic flautist might have been. And in the end it does not matter.

What does matter of course is the music as it speaks to us. It is a creative winner on all counts, varied and haunting. There is nothing quite like it.

You with a sense of adventure would do well to hear this one. It is simultaneously a meditation on our origins and a music very much of today. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Beth Levin, Bright Circle, Piano Music by Schubert, Brahms, Del Tredici

Any confirmed classical music listener will have at least some works she or he has heard over time often and in more than one performance (in the recorded medium), and perhaps in concert as well. When faced with a new version, the older ones one has heard inevitably stand in comparison to the one you are hearing. That is true for me of two of the three works contained in pianist Beth Levin's Bright Circle (Navona 6074).

The very much acclaimed earlier works are the ones I refer to: Schubert's "Piano Sonata No. 20, D.959" and Brahms's "Variations and Fugue on a Theme By Handel, Op. 24." The Schubert is especially an old favorite. I revel in the special Schubertian ringing melodic and harmonic brilliance, as many do. I have a few rather Viennese versions on LP. Those tend to be more spacious and glimmering in their lyricism. Then there are the showcase pianists who make of it a technical marvel. Beth Levin splits the difference in a way, not ignoring the bravura dramatics nor de-emphasizing the melodic beauty,

Johannes Brahms' "Variations and Fugue on a Theme By Handel, Op. 24" is one of the monumental theme and variation sets of its time, a wealth of contrasting treatments of Handel's theme that challenges the pianist to coopt the technical demands in the service of the extraordinary variational eloquence. Beth Levin once again finds a way to underscore the musical drama of each movement with interpretive clarity and passion, while in this case expressing fully the majestic wholeness of the music.

The final performance centers around David Del Tredici and his"Ode to Music," which is based on Del Tredeci's original arrangement of Schubert's An die Musik for wind quintet. This is its ultimate re-expression for solo piano. The piece as thought through by Levin serves as a fitting close for this program.

In the end we have some very personal and ultra-musical pianistic poeticism from Beth Levin. She neither seeks to steal the show with eccentric visions of these wonderful pieces, nor does she disappear in the telling of the musical narrative. The interpretations do not wear the emotions on the sleeve as much as channel content and affect for the sensibilities of our present-day selves. That is a tightrope walk that not everyone can pull off and still be themselves. Ms. Levin triumphs in doing just that.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Anthony Paul de Ritis, Pop Concerto, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The spectrum of styles to be had in the hands of talented present-day composers is pretty vast. Anthony Paul de Ritis exemplifies a modern tonal postmodernism, inventive well orchestrated music we can hear productively in his recent release Pop Concerto (BMOP Sound 1051). It consists of his "Pop Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra" (2014) plus three additional works, as played with relish and verve by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose.

This is music minus the usual repetition of minimalism, yet there still is a working through of motives and a sort of variational lucidity that moves away from rapid looping and regains horizontal developmental trajectories in keeping with modern tonal stances. There is ever a rhythmic vitality to this music, a factor that gives it all a very contemporary edge and alludes in part to rock-pop forms.

That is most pronounced, understandably, in the title work "Pop Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra" featuring Eliot Fisk on acoustic guitar. The music in each of the four movements is based foundationally around a rock-pop song of note. Namely "Bring it On" by Seal, Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," "Beautiful Day" by U2, and "The Way You Make Me Feel" by Michael Jackson. The key to the success aesthetically of this concerto is the reworking of the song material and the inventive quality of the solo guitar part. The final results are far more than a simple arranging of song material to fit an orchestral-guitar solo idiom. There is on display a thorough conceptual rigor and flow that brings it above an arrangement and into new compositional territory.

The bonus works extended our appreciation of the composer's originality. "Amsterdam" (2004) is a tour de force showpiece for orchestra that reminds of Michael Torke's orchestral work, gives us a kind of modern-day equivalent and springboarding off of Aaron Copland, yet makes strides in an original direction.

"Riflessioni" (2014) enters more complex labyrinthian depths of orchestral complexity with mysterioso darkness and heightened expressionist syntax for both solo bassoon (Patrick de Ritis) and full ensemble. It is the more modernist of the works to be heard in the program, and perhaps a bit more esoteric-serious-moody than the others.

Finally there is "Ballet" (1997/2013) featuring the two piano Duo X88 (Vicky Chow and Saskia Lankhoorn), a substantial 20-minute work. It is slightly more "radically tonal" perhaps than the others, with a forward momentum like "Amsterdam" yet also a sort of quasi-pentatonic-modal cascading flow running parallel inside of the rhythm..

de Ritis leaves me with a firm conviction that he has managed to come up with a new synthesis that is original and definable in personal terms. It is well healed, sonically mapped music with much to recommend it.

I strongly favor this one.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Eugene Ysaye, Portraits, Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Sharon Park

Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931) was during his lifetime one of the most acclaimed violin virtuosos alive, known by many as the "king of the violin". He also composed works to showcase his virtuosity. The Six Sonatas for Violin Solo, Op. 27 (1923) is one of the most demanding and beautiful of his works. Violinist Sharon Parks brings us a detailed and impassioned reading of all six on Portraits (MSR Classics 1631).

The demanding and bravura music is basically an embodiment of the expressive romantic solo violin tradition that goes especially back to Paganini but shows the sure hand and originality of Ysaye. Unlike Reger's solo violin work it does not often directly show roots in Bach, although there is a genetic relation, an occasional quotation and a general spirit that goes back to Johann. The sonatas do also generate more extroverted declamations in the manner of concerted cadenzas typical of the showcase works of the 19th century. Nonetheless the sonatas were initially inspired by hearing Joseph Szigeti play Bach's Unaccompanied Sonatas.

There is a supreme seriousness of purpose that evinces much more than technical feats. It is superior violin virtuosity that never short shrifts content. Each sonata is dedicated to a violin virtuoso of Ysaye's day and in part reflects a response to each violinist's way of playing. So there is one sonata each dedicated to Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, Georges Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga.

Sharon Park meets the challenge of this set in the most musical ways, showing a polish and a substantial dash of flamboyance very suitable to the music. It is for her a definite triumph.

I for one am very glad to have her readings. If serves as a sort of definitive view of these important works.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Felix Hell, Heroic Proportions, Organ Music of Bach, Franck, Barber, Stewart and Willan

Those who appreciate the organ music repertoire will find Felix Hell's Heroic Proportions (MSR Classics 1542) of interest. It is a wide-ranging selection of works spanning wide period and style sets, with as the title suggests a heroic organistic flourish at the forefront much of the time.

The common link throughout is the fine artistry of Felix Hell. He gives each work a detailed and very worthwhile reading.

The Bach "'St. Anne' Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major" has the stately seriousness of purpose one might expect. And the Franck "Piece Heroic" (1878) brings an epic, determined dimension into play.

William Strickland's organ arrangement of Samuel Barber's beautifully melancholy "Adagio" translates the string parts to organ with dramatic intelligence. It must be heard closely, however, as its subtlety demands your attention.

Lastly we have two lesser known works , the World Premier Recording of Eric R. Stewart's "Sonetto" (2012) and Healey Willan's "Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue" (1916). The Stewart work has modern fireworks and heroic dash. The same can be said for the Willan, with the nearly 100 years between the two works a factor the ear can recognize without trouble.

And so Felix Hell brings us a substantial recital that all organ enthusiasts will appreciate.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Ernst Krenek, Complete Piano Concertos, Volume Two

A composer as long lived (1900-1991) and as productive as Ernst Krenek may in the end suffer neglect in the years following his death. And then as time moves on he may happily be subject to re-evaluation. The positive sign of that is in a welcome survey of his Complete Piano Concertos, of which today I report in on Volume Two (Toccata 0392). It is a finely honed interpretation of four of the seven works that make up the total, featuring Mikhail Korzhev and Eric Huebner on pianos, additional soloists as needed, and the English Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Woods.

Krenek was one of the master high modernists of last century, but perhaps more recognized as a cutting-edge force in the earlier days of his career. Blame that no doubt on the upheavals in Europe beginning in the thirties, leading to unspeakable degeneration and savagery in the years following. Three of the concerted works in the volume stem from 1950-51; the other is from 1940. All are finely wrought masterworks that combine a personal approach to serialism and non-serial elements, the latter of a characteristic and local thematic sort.

The "Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 123" (1950), in first recording incredibly enough, has a remarkable balance between piano assertions and orchestral weight. The far reaches of modern harmonic possibilities prevail, yet the orchestrational and expressive structures bring forth a highly accessible discursive fluidity.

The "Concerto for Two Pianos, Op. 127" (1951) alternates a dramatically thickened density at times, thanks to the two-pronged solo possibilities, with quieter luminescences that evoke a sort of hushed twilight feel.This is another most welcome first recording.

As the listener segues to the "Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, Op. 124" (1950) she or he finds a different balance of expression made possible by the two emotional and aural dimensions available via the two solo instruments. An elaborate three-way dialog between violin, piano and orchestra acts as a brilliantly transparent window into a sonic landscape that moves continually between the three poles of musical discourse. This third and final first recording of the volume once again alerts us to how fully mid-century Krenek was in control of the expressive spectrum available in the concerted form.

The final, brief "Little Concerto for Piano and Organ, Op. 88" (1940) unveils yet another sonic brilliance, with piano and organ fleshing out a tandem singularity that expresses much in the most compact ways.

In sum this volume is a treasure of Krenek at a mid-century peak. The music is invariably excellent and moving. That so much of it is virtually unknown today is all the more reason to obtain this volume and listen deeply to it.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Julius Rontgen, Symphonies 9 & 21, Serenade, Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, David Porcelijn

The human animal is imitative. From infancy on, we learn to mimic the humans around us. And in every adolescent there is the world of imagination and creative singularity. Composers who are worth their salt manage to imitate and then enter a personal world of their own making. Julius Rontgen (1855-1932), a Netherlandish symphonist, does not enjoy a wide currency in today's concert world. Yet judging by the recent recording of his Symphonies 9 & 21 and his Serenade (CPO 777 120-2) he stands out as one who has worked through imitation and found a way to be original, at least sometimes.

The Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt under conductor David Porcelijn bring to us careful and nuanced readings of the three scores.

The "Semmering Serenade" is the earliest representative work, hailing from 1902. It marked his late entrance into large scale orchestral composition, though several youthful symphonies were under his belt by 1875. Apparently he destroyed them sometime after. The "Serenade" has some beautifully alive, long lined lyric melodics.

The "Symphony No. 9 'Bitonal'" (1930) has an elusive way about it. It does not exactly sound "modern," and indeed Rontgen did not find that the modern ways of his time suited his own sensibilities. Instead a kind of feelingful inspiration was his approach. There is a residue of romanticism to be heard here and elsewhere, but like Grieg and Sibelius it was but an idiom to allow inventiveness free reign. The "Bitonal" Symphony oscillates between centers. It is more a continual modulation between key polarities than a simultaneity of two keys at once as in Milhaud. Rontgen's bitonality is a linear trajectory between two key centers. Never does the bitonal twain meet. The mysterious and the characteristic are more at the forefront than a sort of tonal assault. Sometimes it feels like a continual developmental section of sonata form and a transition that does not transit in the end. Nothing wrong with that, really. It is fascinating music.

The "Symphony No. 22" has much charm and an orchestrational luminescence which somehow channels Brahms and Mendelssohn into the 20th century. In this Rontgen asserts himself as a consummate craftsman of neo-romantic pastoral pasturization? Yes. A man out of his time, no doubt, but if we forget that it does not matter.

Interesting and well-fashioned symphonics. And for that there is much pleasure to be had.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Lou Harrison, Violin Concerto and More, Tim Fain, PostClassical Ensemble

Lou Harrison belongs to that stubborn, iconoclastic Yankee school of last century that began with Ives and Ruggles and continued with Harry Partch, Cage, Henry Cowell, Henry Brant and Harrison himself. Harrison refused tamely to submit to the requirements of "Western" modern classical as defined in his lifetime. He was one of the more dramatically effective and inventive proponents of an "East-Meets-West" eclectic originality.

We hear this all very clearly on a well-realized three-work anthology. Violinist Tim Fain, pianist Michael Boriskin and the PostClassic Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordonez bring to us a well finessed reading of Violin Concerto, Grand Duo and Double Music (with John Cage) (Naxos 8.559825).

Fain has the right combination of rhapsodic projection and modern sonar facticity. The same might be said in pianistic terms for Michael Boriskin. The PostClassical Ensemble handles the various percussive and chamber requirements of the composer with a bit of dash and aplomb.

These are all nicely representative of Harrison at his finest. The Grand Duo (1988) is perhaps the lesser known of the three works and in some ways it brings us a Harrison slightly more integrated into Western classical tradition. That is, on the surface. Listen to the subtle interweaving of violin and piano parts and you will recognize something of the Harrison world expansiveness. It all takes place though in a more quietly underscored expressive way.

On the other hand the Violin Concerto (1940-1959) uses a percussion chamber group to suggest the more exotic allusions to gamelon and other non-Western music, which the violin in turn takes on with acute extroversion and seamless expressivity.

Harrison and Cage's breakthrough percussion work Double Music (1941) makes a decided break with Western norms to create an analogic new music entranced with and entrancing the non-Western elements that make a clearing and at the same time give momentum to the idea of New Music for percussion ensemble, which at that time was a very new idea. The lines intermix and continually vary within and against themselves. This is a fabulous version that stands out among the many recorded. It is that for its most musical approach, the way every phrase presents itself with great tensile strength and the near ghost of a rubato that applies torque and makes it all "swing," if you'll pardon a borrowed jazz term.

All told the Naxos release brings to us seminal Harrison played with ideal sympathy, creative fervor alternating with expressive quietude. The Naxos price helps make this CD well nigh irresistible.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Tonu Korvitz, Moorland Elegies

Music that turns out as, or even more evocative than its title suggests leaves us transported, if all is right. That ends up how I feel about Tonu Korvits's Moorland Elegies (2015) (Ondine 1306-2). It is a nine-part work for mixed choir and string orchestra. The texts are poems by Emily Bronte. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under Risto Joost give to the score all the potentially moody ambience that is inherent in its beautiful tone painting contents. It has some similarities with the ambiances of fellow Estonian Arvo Part. It partakes even more in a haunting after-modern impressionism so that it readily serves as a contemporary model of what can be done.

Korvits himself says of the work that it is a journey "into the darkest, most mysterious corners  of loneliness to where one doesn't dare peek twice." Composers are apt perhaps to wax hyperbolic about what a work purports to do. In this case though, it is almost an understatement. The eerie poetic revery builds sonic worlds that have the capacity to poetically transfix, and they do so without release. It is the sort of work that silence or any everyday sound you hear after the work has ended takes on the coloration of the music the remains in the active imagination. Moorland Elegies colors your world so thoroughly that for some time afterwards nothing seems to return to the crisp mundane everydayness that you normally operate within.

What can be said musically can rarely be said so well that there is no mistaking its content. Moorland Elegies does this in magical terms, where that which is concrete in its building blocks transforms into an ethereal presence and an ever-liquidian flow that refers back to long stretches of vegetative leveling, wind that states its disregard of human presence, and the totality of being utterly alone within such a world.

To say it eschews a romantic sentimentality is the case. It instead gives forth with an "after all, this is what remains" kind of dynamic finality. There is the mysterious ineffable quality of Ives' "The Unanswered Question." This work gives us the unquestionable answer. That in the end is the historically positioned subject at a point where all the hurly burly of past experience disappears into a haze of not-self.

There is singularity of purpose and rare totality of tonal imagery to be heard on this recording. To listen is to enter a world where we matter by disconnecting from the world outside of the desolate moor-scape and immersing ourselves fully in its facticity.

Nothing quite has this titanically fragile moodiness. It is a world that is post-pastoral, way beyond the nostalgia for a lost world, but rather a lost-in-the-world solitude. All is what it is, and that is regretful in its beauty. There is more I could say. The main thing is how the music stuns by an uncanny analogic juxtiposition of subject-text and tonal refractory magic.


Friday, August 18, 2017

J.S. Bach, Inventions & Sinfonias, Karin Kei Nagano

Who "owns" Western Civilization? The answer is everybody. For the classical music canon, for example, anyone is encouraged to listen, anyone to perform, anyone to devote a life to it or just let it ornament their existence. That J.S.Bach is German is a fact. Germans look to him with pride, yet he belongs to the entire world. It is true in the end of all music.

That L.A. born pianist Karin Kei Nagano chooses to perform Bach's Inventions & Sinfonias (Analekta 2-8771) is wholly a part of the picture. She is a very talented artist, completely steeped in classical tradition and performance practices and yet she also gives us crisply poetic interpretive versions of these masterworks that inject her very own sensibility. This is how it should be.

If in my opening lines if I say the obvious it is only with a righteous indignation because of what local White Supremacists have been doing: attempting to hijack the world's cultural heritage to serve their own evil agenda. (Among other unspeakable things.) It will not stand.

So as it happens Bach's Inventions & Sinfonias (BWV 772-801) are gems of the highest order. Yet Bach simply wrote them for his family and students as a pedagogical device to enable them to gain fluency on the keyboard. In the process he created a set of contrapuntal works that mark his genius as surely as anything he ever wrote.

If you took classical piano lessons the chances are good that you learned them. If you did or did not matters little in the end, since Ms. Nagano plays them all with great interpretive sensitivity so that they all sing out in all their glory. She does not generally take things at a maddening clip. Instead she seeks to bring out each part with clarity and poetic poise.

Wonderful versions of wonderful music. Time and identity virtually cease to exist when listening.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stephen Dodgson, 24 Inventions for Harpsichord, Ekaterina Likhina

Nearly every day lately I am surprised to hear something unknown and unexpected. Today's classical-modern selection clocks in and it's another I never might have known were it not for the CD playing now on my player. I speak of the World Premiere Recording of something by Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013). Namely we have Ekaterina Likhina playing Dodgson's 24 Inventions for Harpsichord (Naxos 9.70262).

Here is a modern English composer of obvious caliber. He presented a first set of inventions in 1955, when he was only 21 years old.  Three more sets followed through 1990. All four sets of inventions comprise the full 24 performed here. The short pieces all have a Scarlatti-like rhythmic drive, expressiveness, and compact incisiveness, thriving within a chromatic-diatonic realm one might call neo-classical without doing the music an injustice, although the composer himself might have had something to say about that category. It is another old-in-the-new set of works, with an obvious nod to earlier inventions but a 20th century modern outlook at base.

Stephen's widow has been on hand, happily, to guide Ekaterina Likhina on tempo, notation and character. The resulting performances sound to me definitive. Liners say that these Inventions are among the most important works for harpsichord in our times. Based on the more well known modern works I have heard repeatedly I would have to say that these compare most favorably.

There is much excellent music to absorb. The complexities and inventive detail in these works demand multiple and unsuperficial hearings to grasp fully. It is worth the trouble, since in the end there is a great deal to like!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Frederico Moreno Torroba, Guitar Concertos 2

Last February 13, 2016 I reviewed on these pages the first volume of Torroba (1891-1982) Guitar Concertos featuring guitarists Pepe Romero and Vincente Coves, with the Malaga Philharmonic under Manuel Coves. We now contemplate the second volume (Naxos 8.573503), with all the same save the appearance of the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra.

For the second outing Pepe Romero handles the solo duties on "Homenaje a la seguidilla" (1962) and the "Tonada concertante" (1975-80). Vicente Coves takes over for the "Concierto de Castilla" (1960).

Romero's pupil Vincente Coves plays as beautifully as his mentor. The Extremadura Orchestra sounds every bit as idiomatic and vibrant as one would hope for in this music.

The music is captivating, with Castilian-Spanish folk elements vying with a kind of neo-impressionist shimmer and lyricism. The solo guitar parts have bravura and introspection at the forefront alternatingly.

The three works that comprise Volume 2 of Torroba's Guitar Concerto outing continue the wonderful fare and make for a beautiful listen. I heartily recommend it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mark John McEncroe, Symphonic Suites 1 & 2, A Medieval Saga

Living Australian composer Mark John McEncroe came to composing relatively late, spending his 20s and 30s as music label manager for EMI Australia and then EMI Sweden. He returned to Australia and began in earnest piano studies, clarinet studies and eventually theory and composition, the latter with Margaret Brandman from 2003 to 2012. He began composing a number of symphonic poems with orchestration help from Mark Salibus, with whom he continues to study.

Earlier this year Parma Records released a recording of Mark John McEncroe's "Natalie's Suite" for orchestra along with several solo piano works. The present release continues the relationship with a two-CD recording of the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armore performing McEncroe's Symphonic Suites 1 & 2: A Medieval Saga (Navona 6116). The orchestration is handled deftly by McEncroe's mentor Mark Salibus.

There is a series of thematically intertwined continuities that serves to unify both suites into a cohesive whole. The two suites musically depict a story of Middle Age political upheaval and its aftermath.

What strikes me most on hearing and rehearing the lengthy two-part work is the way the sprawling unfolding of the score in a consistently minor mode serves to put this music into a kind of timeless world zone. It has a sort of mysterious east-meets-west aura about it. Indeed, its minor ornamental continuity reminds me a little of some of Hovhaness's more Armenian tinged works, only with less focus on a specific region or time and perhaps more of an alternate contemporary-in-archaic mode that straddles a wider set of allusions.

One is left with a singular impression of a kind of organicized stylistic unity and flow that places the music outside of time yet also anchors itself fully in a post-modern kind of present. It transcends a typical pomo vision by unfolding more according to modal-flowing, flowering lines that allude to early music melodic expression without actually quoting or directly assimilating it.

I am left with an impression of something complete unto itself yet rather thoroughly outside contemporary modern music currents. It virtually stands apart from any modern mainstream realms yet in the end reflects our times as through a lens into the past.

Something entirely different, this is. Any adventurous soul may well readily take to this music as I have. Happily recommended.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Johann Mattheson, 12 Suites for Harpsichord, Gilbert Rowland

Of masterful baroque composers there are seemingly more than a few who for whatever turn of fate we have nigh well forgotten. Today we have an instructive example in Johann Mattheson (1681-1764). We get a solid look at his music for solo keys in his 1714 opus 12 Suites for Harpsichord (Athene 23301 3-CD set) as spiritedly and authentically realized by Gilbert Rowland.

The liner notes for this release tell us that he lived in Handel's time and indeed was a friend of his. He composed, played organ, wrote, danced, fenced and was multilingual. His friendship with Handel suffered a setback when they fought a duel over Handel's involvement in a performance of Mattheson's opera "Cleopatra." Happily no one was hurt and their friendship resumed.

His operatic career as singer ended when he became the secretary for the English Ambassador in 1705. By 1715 he was Music Director at Hamburg Cathedral. Increasing deafness forced him to give up that position in 1728. He composed numerous choral works during that time, but tragically much of his music has been lost to us during the bombings of WWII. The liners reassure us that the opera "Cleopatra" survives along with a good deal of instrumental works, one of which of course is the "12 Suites" that forms the whole of the current release.

The suites combine homophonic and contrapuntal elements, and are made up of dance music and pure movements that serve to introduce and connect the whole of each suite. In that they were like Handel and Bach's forays into this mode, but also you can hear at times a French element, a similarity to Rameau in the briskly kinetic but lyrical effusions.

The "12 Suites" establish for us Mattheson's idiomatic immersion in the baroque of his time but also a definite originality.

The music comes alive thanks to Gilbert Rowland's apposite and enthusiastic performances. The set will appeal to anyone who revels in baroque harpsichord. Mattheson may be tragically obscure these days but he is undeservedly so. The "Suites" give you many reasons to listen and enjoy. Take the plunge on this one, should you be so inclined. I do not think you will be disappointed. I for one am glad to hear and in the future re-hear these unknown gems!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Karol Szymanowski, Piano Music, Barbara Karaskiewicz

Arthur Rubenstein did more to introduce Western audiences to the piano music of Poland's brilliant composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) than anyone alive in the 20th century. If today his music is not as frequently performed as it might be, the masterful quality and expressivity of the oeuvre as a whole demands a serious immersion in the best of it if we are to understand the 20th century musical strengths and poetics of Eastern European classical-modernism.

Barbara Karaskiewicz combines virtuosity and interpretive acuity to be a near ideal exponent of a series of breathtaking Szymanowski works in her volume of his Piano Music (Divine Art 25151) that has recently become available.

What makes this album especially attractive is its intelligent mix of early and later works. The "Nine Preludes, Op. 1" and the "Four Etudes, Op. 4" are followed by the later "Masques, Op. 34" and the "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62."

The earlier music has something of the late romantic virtuoso brilliance that so overtook the musical sensibilities of 19th century piano music via Chopin and Liszt. Even then though the Szymanowski "Preludes" and "Etudes" included here have a distinctively original individuality and a zeitgeist reflecting the winds of change blowing transformatively over Europe and the music of the era.

By the time the composer completed his "Masques, Op. 34" and his "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62" there is a distinct movement toward a 20th century modernism conjoined with his ever-prevailing rhapsodistic and poetic demeanor.

The early and later phases of Szymanowski's piano music as we hear them on this album are not a matter of  a contrast between tentative student works and mature mastery. There is a stylistic shift to be followed, surely, but the whole of this music shows a full command over pianistic resources and an highly inventive originality that sings out from first to last.

Ms. Karaskiewicz puts a sense of clarity and passion into each movement, a genuinely sympathetic lyrical and dramatic touch that is so needed for a vital interpretation of this most expressive composer.

The end result is a very happy meeting of pianist and composer. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a better single CD that brings to us all that makes Szymanowski's piano music important and movingly alive. Here is a great place to start if you want to know why the composer is a central figure in the Polish early modern period. The selection and performances are equally rewarding to one who already knows something of the music. Barbara Karaskiewicz puts it all before us in glowing terms. Do not hesitate to grab a copy of this album!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Music from SEAMUS, Vol. 1, The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States

Electro-acoustic music, in its "electronic music" and "musique concrete" incarnations, was one of New Music's most potent and advanced gestures from the '50s through the '70s. There were even best selling albums such as Walter (Wendy) Carlos' Switched on Bach. And then, almost as quickly, Electronic Music went out of fashion for a time, Nevertheless the Millennium and beyond has brought a resurgence. Music from SEAMUS (EAM-9301) documents the electronic pre-Renaissance, in a first volume of works released under the auspices of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. It covers the period between 1980 and 1991, a somewhat dark time for the reception of such music but as we hear on this volume, a time when excellent work was still being produced.

The six compositions on the anthology give us a window on some state-of-the-art developments. Four works feature conventional instruments (and voice in one example) and processed and/or synthesized electric sounds. Two are works for electro-acoustic forces alone.

The stylistic parameters fall rather squarely into a high modernist and beyond sound color and open-form expansive orientation. On the works for instruments and electroacoustics there is a consistent attempt to extend the scope of acoustical instruments with synergies between the two realms. The all-electroacoustic works develop aural landscapes of varying densities.

For your information, the following is a round up of the composers, works and configurations: James Mobberley opens the program with his "Spontaneous Combustion" (1991) for alto saxophone and computer generated accompaniment; it is followed by James Phelps and his "Chordlines" (1991) for computer-generated tape; next up is Anna Rubin and her "Remembering" (1989, rev. 1993) for soprano, piano and tape; then follows Stephen David Beck and "Improvisation on Strange Attractors v1.0b" (1990) for bassoon and Virtual Instrument Paradigm; Bernardo Feldman and his "Still Life" (1986) for tape follows; the concluding work is Kwok-ping John Chen's "Ring Shades" (1990) for solo percussion with two-channel tape.

What we experience on this volume are a series of works that deserve fully a hearing today. They should not bask in the obscurity that has been the fate of much electro-acoustic work towards the end of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the history of later New Music will find this enlightening. Anyone with open ears will find the hearing of it all pleasureable. Give it a listen, by all means.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Gyorgy Kurtag, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

I was tangentially a part of a Facebook thread yesterday. Implied was a question: Who listens to New Music these days? One answer is that they are generally the same audience who listens to classical music in general. Often enough that is true in the concert setting, given that a contemporary work may be a part of a program along with older classics. In the matter of those who purchase New Music recordings, it still can apply. However, there also is a group of listeners who respond more exclusively to the new and avant but do not necessarily collect and get into the earlier classical music. They are a smaller group. They may listened to advanced jazz, rock, and/or world more than Bach. This blog caters to both and manages to get a respectable readership out of the two camps. I of course appreciate the patronage.

When it is a matter of today's offering, either group might be well served by the contents. It is an important release from a composer who has gotten attention over the years as a major figure in the New Music, Gyorgy Kurtag.  Today we have a worthwhile compilation of three-CDs: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07).

It is an all-encompassing collection of compositions by the Hungarian high modernist, nicely recorded and very well performed by soloists, guests, the Asko/Schonberg Ensemble and the Netherlands Radio Choir under the guidance of conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.

The recording of  the numerous works on this set was a labor of love. De Leeuw has performed each of these a number of times in the last twenty years. The master recordings for the set took shape from March 2013 through July 2016. Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag were intimately involved both before and after each session. Their detailed evaluation of each result sometimes led to De Leeuw's re-recording of some of the music, both sections and an entire re-performance as deemed necessary.

The results met the full approval of the Kurtags and so the music stands as a benchmark for performances to come. Only a thorough personal immersion in the recordings make that plain. Kurtag is not a composer easily categorized. The reasons for that are not hard to find. His music covers a wide swath of possibilities in a high modernist and near tonality realm that ever bestirs in new configurations, dramatic ebbs and flows, sheer power or reflective unwindings.

The wealth of works cover a long span between 1959 and 2011. Most fall somewhere in the middle years. Not all include the choir. The ones that do show a natural feel for musico-vocal-instrumental declamation. The purely instrumental works are filled with color and a shifting focus on ongoing event structures.

Some eleven works make up the totality of the program. I come away from the set with a strong attraction to the music and a feeling that we are in the presence of a living master of true importance. A work-by-work breakdown of what is present might have a tedious quality for the lightening engage-and-move-on readership here on the net. There is just too much and because of the original quality of Kurtag's music it would take many paragraphs to do justice to what we get. Instead, I will say that this set underscores the unvarying quality of Kurtag's music, as it sets you on a riveting journey through the thickets, the broad panoramas, the high mountain peaks and peaceful valleys of what makes Kurtag so absorbing and worthwhile.

Spend time with this set and I suspect you will, like I have, get a distinct tingle of satisfaction. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Brian Current, Faster Still, Chamber Works

Brian Current, a living Canadian composer, manages on his CD Faster Still (Centrediscs 24217) to toggle between high modernism (in his advanced whirlwinds of colorful execution and sometimes advanced, edgy tonality) and postmodernism (in his use of tonality and sometimes in the notefull presentation). As a composer of his time, he is not afraid to mesh modern and postmodern elements in a single work, so that virtually anything can and does happen in service to the aesthetic whole. All this on the multistranded chamber works written between 1996 and 2016.

Current comes at us like a force of nature, of irregular eddying torrents of wind or water, with clusters and deft collisions of notes and sound colors. All happens via a series of five provocative chamber works and a bonus concluding work for chamber orchestra.

There is a freshening to be heard throughout. None of this is precisely predictable; most of the works are unexpected in their post-Boulezian motility, like particles hitting one another at high speeds in a collider or wafts of coloristic atmosphere formation.

The opening "Inventory" (2006) sets the pace with an excitement generated out of soprano Patricia O'Callighan's pleasing virtuosity and the flowing sureness of the chamber orchestra Slipstream. This is marvelous music, built through a genuinely insightful layering of idiomatic part writing and the effect the totality has in generating movement.

From there it continues fruitfully and vitally. The remaining four works are all distinctive and brilliant. If I only cover what I generally like on these pages, please rest assured I like CDs such as this with a heartiness that is in no way feigned.

So if I might be so bold as to suggest, Faster Still will engage and delight virtually anyone who favors the new and the inventive possibilities still available to our collective musical senses. Brian Current is the real thing and this music makes for essential listening.

Grab this one!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Erik Satie, Complete Piano Works 1, New Salabert Edition, Nicolas Horvath

Anyone who for some reason does not know Erik Satie's piano music has been missing out on a singularly wonderful thing. I've listened for so many years to the bulk of it that it has entered my being as something eternally internal to me. I still have the old LPs of the Frank Glazer Vox Box, the Aldo Ciccolini volumes on Angel/EMI, and lately the Jeroen van Veen CD set on Brilliant (see my review here from last October 6, 2016).

And now we have Nicolas Horvath playing Cosima Wagner's 1881 Erard Grand (the make of piano that Satie favored) for Volume One of the Complete Piano Works in the new corrected Salabert Edition of 2016 in its World Premier recording (Grand Piano 761). The Glazer version is the most middle-of-the-road in its clean depiction of the scores, the Ciccolini is the must sparkling and impressionistic version, the van Veen is the more radically iconoclastic of all of them, featuring very slow, sensuously beautiful versions of the lyric masterworks and adventurous readings of the other works.

And so what of Horvath's new set? Of the Volume One? The Erard gives us a sort of pale, brittle vulnerability to the lyric works, most of which are a part of Volume One. We get Gnossiennes, Gymnopedies, Sarabands, the "Sonneries de la Rose Croix" and other gems both very familiar and less so.

Horvath's interpretations are meant to be faithful to Satie's vision and as such they are not spectacularly slow or fast, not extrovertedly dashing so much as concentrated.

The Salabert Edition corrects the numerous errors that crept into the printed versions of the works, some because Satie did not proofread the printed galleys as carefully as he might, and others for whatever reason. I cannot say that my well-accustomed Satie ears perked up and lead me to a pronounced "wow" at any particular point in my listening, but nonetheless it is always a good thing to get the music closer to what Satie intended.

The wealth of lyric pieces combined into the First Volume along with the sterling interpretations make this an excellent place to start for anyone who does not know Satie well. For the cognoscenti this new set promises to be another offering of finely poetic interpretations that completists or enthusiasts will want to have.

Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Delius, Elgar, String Quartets, Villiers Quartet

Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and Edward Elgar (1857-1934) were contemporaries and peers, yet on the surface had not much in common save their mutual English roots. Elgar in his own way accentuated the classical-romantic heritage and made of it something personal as well as something English, with a certain Victorian propriety that does not necessarily mar his inventiveness as it serves to frame it as of his time. Delius followed a personal path that veered at times closer to impressionism without sounding derivative. And his music was often enough sensuous in ways that Elgar's work generally was not. In that sense Delius seems less tied to his period, though none of it sounds exactly "modern."

The contrasts are clear yet there is a commonality to be heard as well in their String Quartets (Naxos 8.573586). The Villiers Quartet give us considered and very poised versions of the two works. Both were a product of the disruption and cataclysm of WWI. Delius favors an unremittingly pastoral beauty, Elgar a more robust moving on at least in the outer movements.

The Delius Quartet originally took shape as a three movement work in 1916. He subsequently gave a thorough overhaul and created a four movement version in 1917. For the first time in a recording we can hear the opening and "Swallows" movements in the original form, as reassembled by Daniel Grimley in 2016. They follow the final four-movement version on the CD, giving us a rare chance to see Delius's creative process at work. And there is such visceral, sensuous beauty in the Quartet that a differing reprise of the first part of the work serves to prolong the pleasure of its quiet serenity.

The Elgar Quartet that follows is a notable example of the mature composer on a serious side, which by then was mostly how he proceeded in any case. Perhaps what is surprising about the Quartet is how it goes with the Delius. It has more robust outer movements, but there is a lyrical serenity in the slow movement. There is a more overt romanticist sentiment, surely. But the work as a whole is not entirely alien to a pastoral setting.

It is as if each reacted to the waning World War with a kind of reassertion of what true peace meant to them.

The Villiers Quartet bring out the beauty and transcendence of these two pivotal works. I am left after hearing the recording multiple times with a feeling of deep satisfaction with the rightness of both music and performance. So I recommend it to you without hesitation.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Puccini, La Fanciulla del West, Placido Domingo, Zubin Mehta

La Fanciulla del West (Pentatone 5186 243), the Wild West opera by Puccini (1858-1924) is something of an oddity, but for all that an endearing one. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 as a vehicle for tenor giant Caruso, it is not one of Puccini's most popular works (La Boheme, Turandot and Madam Butterfly would qualify for such status, all earlier operas). Yet is in no way inferior from a musical standpoint, and ultimately a bit bizarre. The sight of a bunch of operatic cowboys prancing about in a pronounced Puccinian milieu is slightly jarring. But then, why not? Puccini is himself regardless of the subject matter, and a drama set in the classic American West may be unusual but nonetheless satisfying once one gives it all a chance.

All that is only to affirm that "La Fanciulla" is not an opera entirely within the norms of the late Italian tradition. It demands an excellent performance, surely, in order to affirm its own special blend of subject and operatic style. That is to be had on Pentatone's 2-CD reissue of Mehta conducting the Covent Garden production with Carol Neblett  as Minnie and Placido Domingo as Dick Johnson.

What is perhaps most unusual about the recording is that it was produced in the '70s by Phillips as a quadraphonic release as well as a conventional stereo one. The Super Audio CD enables listeners with compatible equipment to listen to both versions as they were intended to sound on initial release.

I have not tried to listen to the quad version--primarily because I no longer have that option right now. But I do find the stereo version sonically superior and the performance of uniformly appealing dramatic and aesthetic quality. The soloists, chorus and orchestra do a fine job and make an excellent case for the opera.

Puccini enthusiasts will embrace this. Others will find it interesting as a sort of Italy-meets-US-folkways adventure. I am glad to have this version. It is a benchmark standard to me, though I have missed some of the other competing versions as of this juncture. A good bet.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sibelius, Symphonies 1 & 6, Thomas Sondergard, BBC National Orchestra of Wales

For some reason, in my first decade of listening to modern classical music, a teen in a rapidly changing world, I thought I was too cool to check out Sibelius. High Modernism was king in my formative years and I was so busy catching on to it that I did not consider so much many of the less abashedly "modern" contemporaries that of course in the main I now gladly treasure. By the time I was at NYU, a professor who gave me much to  think about suggested in one of the non-curricular get togethers that I should take Sibelius seriously. He was right, and so I fell under the spell of Finland's greatest composer rapidly and never went back.

As is always the case, one can get very subtle or very different interpretations of symphonic works by opening up to performances other than the one you have first grown accustomed to. And so appropriately there is a new recording of Sibelius' Symphonies 1 & 6 (Linn Records) by Thomas Sondergard and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of this release is the majestic interpretation of Sibelius' First. A fair number of versions I have heard over time. This one gives us all the ice and passion of Sibelius-as-Sibelius. It sounds less like Tchaikovsky and his "Pathetique" so much as Sibelius and his First. Not of course that Tchaikovsky was not an important influence at that point. Influence is one thing, though, and imitation quite another. Sondergard and the BBC Orchestra make the strongest case for the original strain as I have heard. And in so doing they remind us that the First is a major work in the end, not so much a pre-emptory clearing of the symphonic throat.

The Sixth is well handled, too. If it dances and bounces its way into our listening minds a bit more than other more gravitas versions, it is no less serious a treatment. If an old Colin Davis version remains to me the benchmark for this mature Sibelius triumph, it is only by a slight degree, for Sondergard has a convincing vision of the Master's music that rings true.

So this would form a great introduction to the symphonic Sibelius if for some reason you have not gotten to him yet, and it is a worthy set of new interpretations for old friends of this music, especially the triumphant reading of the First. Listen on!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ravi Shankar, Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch, Complete Version

Anyone who has appreciated Ravi Shankar in some depth knows that he was not only one of India's premiere sitarists. He was also a talented composer who innovated within classic Indian and Western-oriented forms, calling upon large ensembles of classic Indian instruments in combination often enough with Western instruments, as well as the classic Western orchestra in a series of movie soundtracks and other projects. This was a logical outgrowth of his initial involvement with the Uday Shankar Troupe in his youth. That institution featured Indian instruments and vocalists in elaborately arranged ensembles.

Of the many recorded examples of Ravi Shankar's compositional-ensemble music, Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch was one that for some reason I missed on its first release in the early 1990's. The good news is that the complete version has now been issued-reissued (East Meets West 1017). It includes for the first time the complete musical score with some 20 additional minutes added that were not initially included in the first release. It forms Vol. 5 of East Meets West "Nine Decades" series devoted to the Master's musical life.

The theater piece was originally commissioned by the Birmingham Touring Opera Company and premiered in 1989. The theme centers around the tragic results of chronic drug abuse via the story of a talented Indian dancer and his ultimate descent into delusion and death.

As is often enough the case in Ravi's mature compositional stance, both Northern (Hindustani) and Southern (Carnatic) instruments and traditions combine freely as do in this case dance styles of both regions.

The music deftly combines instruments and vocals in a multi-movement scenario that follows the joyful moments and gradual decline into infernal realms with great artistry and beauty.

It ranks up there, in my opinion, with the Master's best compositional suites. It shows a darker side to his music (necessitated by the plot of course) and a bold contrast between spiritual heights and infernal lows like no other Shankar work.

Needless to say I strongly recommend the issue to all Shankar devotees but also anyone seeking to better understand the compositional side of modern Indian classical music.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rued Langgaard, Piano Works Vol. 3, Berit Johansen Tange

The music of Danish composer Rued Langaard (1893-1952) has gradually been gaining more notice here in the States. Primarily this has been taking place as some worthwhile modern recordings have become available. A series of his Piano Works is a good case in point. I am currently in possession of the Volume 3 (DaCapo 6.220631), as played with distinction by pianist Bent Johansen Tange.

Although I have not yet had the pleasure of hearing the earlier volumes, this one gives us a worthwhile selection of works, three in first recordings. Covered are a spectrum of some seven pieces written over a substantial time period between a youthful 1917 and the fullest maturity of the mid-late-'40s. There is not surprisingly a growth to be traced from a Nordic romantic-lyric stance to more radically chromatic effusions, but most always a sprinkling of tonal memorability. As the liner notes make clear, Langgaard starts with a musical vision more than a formal sequencing.

These are pieces written not so much for immediate performances (many were not in fact performed publicly until after his death) as for the sake of a personal expressive outlet. And so the music has a kind of inner deepness more than an audience pleasing demeanor. There is often enough a virtuoso component and a very personal originality. They are sometimes modernistic in tenor, yet they also have a kind of personal determination that is heedless of the prevailing trends, and that can in fact be quite endearing to hear.

Anyone who seeks the more involved expressive possibilities of the modern period solo piano literature will I believe find in this volume a good deal to like. The performances are near-spectacular and Langaard's pianistic poeticism is not quite like any other.

Listen, do.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Franz Liszt, Berlioz Transcriptions, Feng Bian, Piano

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the first genuinely Promethean piano virtuoso. He brought a giganticism, an orchestral presence to the solo piano which in turn was made possible by the advancement in manufacture that gave the modern grand piano a brilliance and a louder, wider dynamic range than it previously had. Liszt created a body of piano literature that suited his concert and salon needs and also did a series of piano transcriptions of celebrated orchestral works of his day, opera chestnuts, Bach organ music and what have you. The orchestral transcriptions made obvious to what might have been otherwise an audience that did not understand: the Liszt and the modern grand could reproduce in pianistic terms what some of the 19th century composers from Beethoven onwards were doing for the fully evolved concert orchestra.

Berlioz and then Wagner expanded the scope and radicalized the romantic symphony orchestra while Liszt was doing the same for the piano. It was only natural that he would embark on a series of piano transcriptions of both. In today's volume we hear his Berlioz Transcriptions (Naxos 8.573710). It is a somewhat judicious assortment of the well-known: the "Dance des Sylphes de la Damnation de Faust," and several chestnuts extracted from "Sinfonie Fantastique" (the "March au supplice" and "L'idee fixe" theme); and the somewhat lesser known: the "Ouverture des Francs-Juges."

All of it is as well configured and as well played by pianist Feng Bian as one might hope.

This one is serious and also lots of fun! Berlioz is transformed and much good it does him.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Frederick Delius, Arnold Bax, Choral Music, The Carice Singers, George Parris

An album collection of Choral Music (Naxos 8.573695) by pre-modernist, sometimes quasi-impressionist English composers Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and Arnold Bax (1883-1953) would first off demand an excellent choral group to make it all shine. We most happily get this with the Carice Singers under George Parris. They are angelic, well balanced and have sopranos that launch the high notes with bell-like clarity and beauty.

They handle the program with impeccable sonority and musicality, bringing out the spirit and letter of the music. There are subtle folk elements buried within these pieces, and often enough a kind of pastoral modern archaicism that only adds to the charm. Both Delius and Bax show a flair for s-a-t-b possibilities.  Most of the music is sung a cappella. The sole exception is Bax's "I Sing of a Maiden that is Makeless," which includes well conceived support from harp, cello and double bass.

There are 11 short Delius works, all atmospheric and enchanting. The earliest works are unabashedly romantic but all benefit from a lyric originality and a sure sense of effective part writing.

Bax is no less appealing with three fairly long songs and two lengthy works in his "Five Greek Folksongs" (1942) and "Mater Ora Filium" (1921).

Perhaps Bax has a slight edge in his harmonic sophistication. Both however show a consummate mastery of the choral idiom and a sort of natural feel for rustic settings and their effective tone-painted realizations.

This one is sheer pleasure. Anyone who likes the Anglo school and/or loves some well sung early contemporary fare will find it all very worthwhile. Recommended!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Yassen Vodenitcharov, Blue Echo

Yassan Vodenitcharov, Bulgarian born modernist composer of worth, brings to us some six illuminating examples of his music on Blue Echo (Gega New 395). His current association with IRCAM in Paris all but guarantees that he espouses some form of High Modernism, and he does. What he is not however is someone out of the "bleep and bloop" serial and post-serial style of pointillistic neo-hockett. There are multiple lines to be heard, understandably, but they can be homophonic or in multiple parallels. One of course does not often find a neo-Webernian approach carrying the day in contemporary music these days, and so too Vodenitcharov goes into the fray with his own sense of sound clusters, color blocks and explorations of personal, well mapped terrains.

The works themselves employ a quite varied instrumentation. "The Ribbon of Mobius" features two pianists and two percussionists, "Blue Echo (Concerto for Trumpet and String Orchestra)" is indeed for that, "Bacchus and Ariadne" utilizes bassoon and celeste, "Trajectories of Silence" has the unusual quartet instrumentation of two mandolins, mandola and guitar, "Lamento" is for orchestra with voice, and "Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra" is self-explanatory.

I would not venture to suggest that this music has some of the dynamic thrust of the new improvisation style currently practiced by some Americans, Europeans and Japanese, mostly because there may be a convergence that is coincidental or not. Nonetheless there are expressive similarities, though Vodenitcharov's examples here are more overtly planned and architecturally framed works with some of the high modern rigor of methods holding sway often enough, if my ears are a good judge.

Each work is unto itself and yet the overall impression is consistent and rewarding. I will not run down my impression of each here. Listening is key of course. Suffice to say that Vodenicharov comes to us in his own special way.

Any following modernist new music trends would be well served by this volume. It is something to immerse oneself in, to study, to enjoy and appreciate with a little effort.

Another one I do recommend as important listening.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Franz Schmidt, Symphony No. 2, Richard Strauss, Dreaming By the Fireside, Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) and his Symphony No. 2 (Sony Classic 88985355522) have been victims of vicious critical attacks since Schmidt wrote the work in 1913. Yet it (the symphony) tends to be subject to some attention via performances and recordings to this day. Perhaps not nearly enough?

Wikipedia calls the score reminiscent of Strauss and Reger with some of the heroic largess of Bruckner, and my ears hear that but to the point more of an originality in the late-romantic realm in which Schmidt worked.

The new recording I have been hearing, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, does much to make a case for its heroic complexities. This is a late-romantic Austro-Hungarian work that when well played as it is on the new recording comes very much into being with lyric tenderness and power (and I hear as much Mahler's influence as the others but Schmidt is here very much Schmidt). This has been described as a kind of pastoral symphony. I can hear that.

An added bonus is Richard Strauss's short orchestral interlude from his not often performed opera Intermezzo, "Dreaming By the Fireside." It is a worthwhile tidbit and serves to remind us how Schmidt is another thing apart from Strauss. If nothing else you hear a much different harmonic palette, even if both have a large and lush orchestral carpeting in common. The variational aspect of the inner movement of Schmidt's Second is of a very different nature than the tone-poem sequentiality of Strauss.

So what we have s a very stimulating and rewarding program. The care with which Schmidt is elaborated marks this as an extraordinarily fine version, a very best, and gloriously sound staged in ways we scarcely hope could be bettered. Kudos!