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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Chiara String Quartet, Bartok By Heart

I believe I've said this before on these pages, but it is nevertheless true that as some early modern classics have become more and more familiar to us all, keenly discerning younger musicians seem more inclined to take the music as whole cloth. They understand the music much better than many of their predecessors did--as they have learned to speak fluently the language of modernism from a young age, as "native" speakers, and they make it all sound like a natural expression, which by now of course it should be.

This is no more true than in the case of the Chiara String Quartet, who give us such beautiful renditions of Bartok's complete String Quartets that you think they themselves wrote them. Bartok By Heart (Azica 71310 2-CDs) is what the title suggests. The Chiara set about memorizing all six quartets and then finessed the details thoroughly. This is the recorded result.

Those results are stunning. These are the quartets the way Bartok envisioned them, one feels as one listens. The early quartets are not overly romantic, the folk elements sound as they might have inside Bartok's head, as truly folk-like, the modernisms are not just technically right, they are phrased naturally and with great spirit.

The Bartok Quartets have long had the reputation as some of the very finest of our times, indeed of any era. The Chiara String Quartet bring you the WHY of that perhaps as never before. It's a product no doubt of the group realization process once they had memorized each quartet--to then concentrate on the four-way expression of the implications of the notes beyond merely getting it all right. There is an incredible togetherness and spirit expressed that make all the complexities seem inevitable, that give the feeling of genuine performative spontaneity, that musicalize each movement well beyond the abstractions they no doubt are. Chiara adds the cognizant connecting tissue, so to speak, the syntactical logic, that gets to the essence of what Bartok is saying.

It is a performance not likely to be surpassed in the near future. It takes the ALL of Bartok and reflects upon it with loving care and attention. This is a release everyone should hear! Superb!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Modes, Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 30

The world of new music continues to flourish. Time does not stand still. We can hear that nicely on the 30th volume of recent compositions for the Society of Composers' ongoing anthology series. Modes (Navona 6051) gives us a wide-ranging gathering of works from seven worthy but lesser-known exponents.

We hear some high modernism from Karen Keyhani on her chamber ensemble work "As Far as Possible," a lively oboe-cello-percussion trio entitled "Valence II" from Robert A. Baker, a solo flute sound poem "Princess Ka'iulani" by Nolan Stolz, a cycle for mezzo-soprano and string quartet "Five Love Songs" from Arthur Gottschalk, Benjamin D. Whiting's electroacoustic "Melodia sin Melodia," "A Mournful Cry" for solo guzheng by Yip Ho Kwen Austin, and a chamber sextet, "Acoustic Field," by Chin Ting Chan.

Time goes by quickly as each work has its say and moves on. It is a bellwether of how diverse new music can be these days, but also a vivid example of the talent and highly evolved craftsmanship that shows itself in such abundance in our times, nowhere more so than on this volume.

Anyone who seeks the new today will find plenty of works of interest here, well performed and happily contentful. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hakki Cengiz Eren, Color Studies

Relatively young (b. 1984) Turkish composer Hakki Cengiz Eren comes through with four outstanding high modernist compositions on the CD Color Studies (Ravello 7938). Sound color, as the title suggests, is a prominent aspect of these works. Indeed Eren excels in creating soundscapes that maximize the sonic contours of the instruments for each piece.

"Buffavento" features the large chamber ensemble Thornton Edge and depicts a castle in Northern Cyprus perched high atop the mountain range there. The structure's name literally means "buffeted by the winds." And accordingly the tone poem vividly brings to us in sound poetic terms an image of a structure isolated and exposed, yet providing a (one presumes) marvelous view of the area.

"Four Studies on Archipenko" is hauntingly scored for violin, Bb and bass clarinet, flute and harp. The extended techniques and moody sprawl Eren fashions for the quartet is played with great beauty by the chamber group ECCE.

"Music for Strings No. 1 (Doors)" is a relatively brief but sonically spectacular string quartet realized nicely by the Argus Quartet.

Finally, "Four Pieces for Solo Viola" weaves together a wide variety of color techniques and expressive pacing in a tour de force that gets superb results in the hands of violist Garth Knox.

All four works have a ravishing color sensibility and cohesiveness that marks Hakki Cengiz Eren as a vital creator on today's high modern scene. It's a wonderful program that I recommend to you without reservations. I hope we can hear more from this composer soon!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Robert Carl, The Geography of Loss

Robert Carl devises a modern music that sounds like no other. On The Geography of Loss (New World 80780-2) we have the opportunity to hear four major works, each with definitive personality and dramatic impact.

His teachers, Xenakis, Shapey, Rochberg, and Jonathan Kramer gave him perhaps the courage to go his own way, as he does in these works.

We last encountered Carl on these pages on October 1, 2013 with an anthology of piano music, Shake the Tree. I found that one quite illuminating and now we get to hear his recent music for larger ensembles.

His "Symphony No. 4, The Ladder" (2008) is a brilliantly orchestrated, highly dynamic, dissonantly modern work with a musical narrative that deliberates as it expands a sound universe all its own.

The "Chamber Concerto for Guitar and 10 Instruments, The Calm Bee in the Busy Hive" (2009-10) was written in response to Carl's rapid loss of both parents in a short piece of time. There are parts for two unusually tuned guitars, with the second reinforcing what the first is doing. The first movement is oddly canonical, musically representing the building of the hive with the queen bee at the center of things. The second movement is elegaic, movingly funereal.

"The World Turned Upside Down" (1999/2000) for symphony orchestra began as the final movement in his "Piano Sonata No. 2" in 1999 and was orchestrated and reworked as the third movement of his "Symphony No. 3" (2000), but can also be heard as it is here on its own. It is the turning point of Carl's compositional methods toward a concern with harmonic series. Somber and full of dense clusters of vertical chords, it is evocative, very memorable and towards the end takes the form of a sort of modern chorale.

The final piece is the eight-movement title work, "The Geography of Loss" (2010) for soprano, baritone, mixed chamber ensemble and chorus and again was written in reaction to the sudden deaths of his parents. Carl cites the influence of Bach and Stravinsky for this music and you can hear a certain structural quality in all of it that seems to reference the masters, yet it like the others stands out as original. Modern and lucidly scored, it covers a great deal of ground. The choral writing is especially poignant.

In the end you come away from this program with a distinct impression of a modern master finding his own way in a high modern zone with a noticeable lyric and dramatic panache that places him in a class of one. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nicolas Kaviani, Te Deum

Nicolas Kaviani writes his modern day Te Deum (Navona NV6021 CD plus Documentary DVD) to praise the heavens in the fundamental manner that Western Civilization has done for many centuries past. In our modern age however the full creation is something we now know much more about than we previously believed. Yet it is still a mystery. The vastness and ineffable nature of boundless space as science has come to know it is the material entity Nicolas Kaviani sets out to praise in his half-hour work for orchestra (Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronsky), choir (Janacek Opera Choir under Pavel Koranik) and soloists (Martina Kralikova, soprano, etc.).

This is jubilant, ecstatic glorification in the capital /G/ sense; Post-Beethovian, post-Mahlerian largess with a hugeness appropriate to its subject matter. A DVD comes with the CD recording to document the making of the music. I have not had DVD capabilities yet since my move so I was unable to watch.

But certainly the music speaks multitudes. A short "Tous les Matins du Monde" for 16 unaccompanied voices ends the program on a subdued, questioning note.

This is music of great drama and impact, a post-Romantic tour de force that unleashes some blockbuster power. Hear this!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

David Lang, The National Anthems, Los Angeles Master Chorale

When is enough minimalism...enough? Clearly there is still life in the form for certain composers. Others, perhaps not. David Lang is one of the productive exponents. The new CD The National Anthems (Canteloupe 21119) continues David Lang's processional journey in moving ways.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Calder String Quartet perform the title work, a kind of dirge for the fallen dead of all nations through the use of at least one word from all the national anthems in the world. The collated text shows us that every nation in one way or another demands from its citizens fighting wars in the national name, potentially giving up one's life at some time or another, especially when young.

The text is indeed a sad one. The music makes use of minor-keyed diatonic fragments that sometimes bifurcate into two-part counterpoint, other times have a chant-like ritual repetition as the main structural focus. The music works well with the text.

A second work, "The Little Match Girl Passion" is based on the children's tale and is scored for the chorale and percussion. It has a more harmonically enriched minor-keyed diatonicism as its basis and so goes well with the title work.

The use of simple means in works such as these is of course no guarantee for success. David Lang uses the elemental building blocks with a ritual sureness that gives us resonance with early sacred world musics yet remains distinct within the parameters Lang has set up.

After several hearings Lang's music proceeded to do its work upon me, so that in the end these works spoke clearly to my musical self. He once again shows us to be a composer of real importance today. Give this one a couple of listens and perhaps you too will find it a powerfully dramatic program.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Per Norgaard, Symphonies 4 & 5, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgards

In the development of modernism in the 20th century, some composers changed the music event structure of their compositional presentation, so that the usual horizontal axis of the unfolding of a movement or work was essentially stood on its head. The music unfolded in time, of course, but the musical events emphasized more than ever a series of vertical complexes, the equivalent of a series of skyscrapers on an urban landscape. That is not to say that harmony was emphasized over melody, but that a series of simultaneities were the focus. The music of Xenakis is a prime example of this sort of thing, as was Penderecki in his avant phase. Perhaps you could go back to Varese for the beginnings of this way of thinking, though the horizontal plane was still an important part of the experience. Stockhausen's Gruppen also comes to mind.

Add to this other composers that followed, Per Norgaard being a great example in his Symphonies 4 & 5 (DaCapo 6.220646), enjoying a new version by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgards.

Symphony No. 5 has the most pronounced vertical axis, but it is present at times in No. 4 as well. Norgaard's exceptional sound sculpting orchestrational scoring of both works is something that hit me on the first listen on. He quite clearly put some thought and creative intuition into the sound blocks he was building and the ever evolving series of event structures are as a result stunning much of the time and quite original at that. You hear more "connecting tissue," melodic segues in No. 4 and so on that level at least perhaps No. 4 is slightly less radical than the symphony that follows. And so to my mind the No. 5 is more of the breakthrough work if one were to choose.

But the special attention to color is present in both works and both construct landscapes of wonderful orchestral combinations in any event. The Oslo Philharmonic with Storgards at the helm gives us the instrumental details with an exactitude yet also an expressive drive that makes these works shine brilliantly. The rugged beauty of the renditions and the inspired compositions hit me squarely in my musical face. Norgaard is seriously important to the modern developments in the recent past, I do believe, and these performances of the Fourth and Fifth will show you just why.

Serious followers of what's new in our time cannot afford to miss this one! But perhaps too anyone with an open mind will find these works provocative in most interesting ways. Hurrah!