Search This Blog

Friday, April 20, 2018

Carson Cooman, Owl Night, Music for Organ Vol. 7, Erik Simmons


The prolific Carson Cooman has been producing an enormous output. Hundreds of works. An earlier volume of his organ music, Litany, I covered on these pages last March 11, 2014.  Today we consider the latest volume of his organ music, Volume 7, Owl Night (Divine Art 25163).

(By the way the Divine Arts Recording Group shortly will be releasing their 500th recording, which in this or any time is a remarkable achievement. Congrats to them!)

I have not heard anything from Cooman that was not well-crafted and engaging. Owl Night is that and a good deal more. It is orchestral-depth organ music in the grand tradition that characterised the French school from Franck to Messiaen. That is not to say that you readily hear an influence so much as it has a beautifully dynamic mysterium and big sweep, not unlike the most ambitious French School organ music that we who love organ music find so appealing.

The music on this volume was written in the second half of 2016 and the first half of 2017. It covers a good deal of ground. So "Two Mantras" manipulates repeating figures and variations on them as well. "Owl Night" is a moody, quiet reverie. "Concert Piccolo" uses a 12-tone row previously utilized by Eberhard Kraus in a work of the same name. The piece is in memoriam.

"Two Fantasias" utilizes the same musical materials for contrasting movements, one bittersweet atmospherics, the other triumphant and majestic. Finally five Preludio, a Postludium, and a "Toccata, Aria and Finale"  send us off with flair. Quietude and  extroverted majesty alternate for a most fitting conclusion.

There is a deeply organ-ic experience available in this volume. There is much to assimilate and richly so. It is not un-Modern, it is un-self consciously Cooman Modern. And it is a very good thing, that. I recommend this to anyone who loves the organ. And anyone who has not yet experienced Carson Cooman and seeks a living voice of distinction in New Music.  Good music. Very good. Worthy of your ears, certainly.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Alan Hovhaness, Suite for Band, October Mountain, The Ruins of Ani, Central Washington Wind Ensemble

Some days are just not ideal. Yet you drag yourself to the computer anyway. Happily the music today has an aura that presents itself to me easily and so writing up today's column will be simplicity itself. Hovhannes (1911-2000) has appealed to me since I came across his Lousadzak MGM recording as a cutout when a freshman in high school. I immediately fell under the spell of the two compositions on that record. He was the first and remains one of the most important of the "Ethnic Moderns" I have happily come to know on my years of earth thus far. His mystical vision and incorporation of Armenian, Indian and other Asian-located musics is in the end ultimately situated in a highly original matrix all his own. This is music that could only be termed Modern in most all senses, yet it too has a timelessness.

So we have a new one, a recording of wind chamber ensemble works that include his Suite for Band, October Mountain and The Ruins of Ani (Naxos 8.559837). Four of the ten works on the album are World Premiere Recordings, and that in itself marks the release as worth noting. The music gets capable and careful treatment in the hands (and lips and teeth) of the Central Washington University Wind Ensemble and selected soloists. The music ranges in time (1948-1985) and instrumentation (from full wind band to solo flute and much in between).

Many Hovhannes acolytes will recognize the classic "Suite for Band" (1948) from earlier recordings. This version rivals versions I have studied. The previously unheard works are worthwhile, the other works done nicely.

In all this is a nice one to have if you are a Hovhaness admirer. It may not be my first choice for a new listener. Yet at the Naxos price you cannot go wrong. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Kara Karayev, Symphony No. 1, Violin Concerto, Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky


On December 30, 2013 I reviewed music by Kara Karayev on these pages. Here we are some nearly five years later and I have another one to bring up. Today there is a new CD of Karayev's "Symphony No. 1" and his "Violin Concerto." They are played enthusiastically and quite respectfully by the Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky. Janna Gandelman is the violin soloist and she sounds well.

The music itself is the main attraction. Karayev (1918-1982) is considered the father of modern Azerbaijani classical music yet too he was aligned in the camp of the Russian moderns.

The two works on the album are a nice contrast. The "Symphony No. 1" was written in 1943 and seems very much Russian Modernistic with the sort of lively severity Shostakovich did so well. Yet this is more than an an extension of that influence, for it travels far into a very vibrant palette of expression, dark and then brilliant, somber and then heroic, but serious, always even though there is a sarcastic playfulness to be heard, too.

The  "Violin Concerto" jumps ahead to 1967 and Karayev's very personal take on Serialist possibilities. There is even more of the Modernist to be heard, yet it very much sounds pan-Russian-Azerbaijanian in an individual way.

These two works bear much fruit on close inspection. They are neither inconsequential nor lightweight. They are convincing reasons why Karayev should be heard today. For he holds his own. Very well.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, Complete Ballet, Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

I don't suppose I will raise too many eyebrows if I say that Prokofiev's ballets to me rival those of Stravinsky. Well, maybe a few. It is hard to top "The Firebird," "The Rite of Spring" and "Petrushka." Nevertheless Prokofiev's "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet" have an nearly equal power and charm to my mind. That does not mean they have had equal historic importance. Yet history is something that has passed and contemporary evaluation via continued performances is perhaps something else altogether. History is made. Contemporary appreciation either exists or it does not.

Since music should best not be viewed as a kind of horse race, since in the end once a composer is gone there is no true advantage of edging out a rival, none of this matters today. So for example when I find the Complete Ballet of Prokofiev's  Romeo and Juliet is available in a new version, I do not stop and try to rank its place in the pantheon. I simply want to hear it. And so I have gotten a copy and have been listening. It (Naxos 8.573534-35 2-CDs) is performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. Based on Alsop's cycle of Prokofiev's symphonies I knew the chances were good that she lavished an equal care with the ballet, and my expectations have been confirmed after a number of listens.

By the time Prokofiev conceived of and wrote the ballet (1935-36, 1939) the Soviet Union was developing a set of guidelines that amounted to a judgement irrespective of context of what works were or were not acceptable to the regime. So were sad endings permissible? It sounds ridiculous now, but that was a huge issue. So much so that Prokofiev's original version had Romeo and Juliet's mutual suicides avoided through a last-minute intervention by Friar Lawrence. The ballet was essentially prevented from having a full performance for a number of years because of the sad ending heresy!

Anyone who knows Prokofiev's musical personality must also know that a happy Romeo and Juliet would not be something Prokofiev would gravitate towards, since there is a bitter-sweet happy-sad element to his music at its finest. It is a key to the power of his music and also the power of Shakespeare's play.

So we ultimately should be glad Prokofiev had the courage to follow the story as it was intended to be told. The complete ballet has some of Prokofiev's most moving passages and all-in-all it has great appeal regardless of the circumstances of its making.

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony come through with a detailed, spirited and impassioned reading of the complete opus. This may not be Prokofiev at his most Modern, in spite of some huge dissonances and some idiosyncratically hard-edged moments in the score. It hardly matters or it should not when the music is this transcendent and lasting.

The memorable lyrical-brittle music for this ballet speaks to me as much as ever, in no small thanks to Alsop's loving attention. It is nothing short of a triumph, I must say. If you have not spent time with the complete Romeo and Juliet, here is the chance to do it with an excellent performance at a nice price. If you are a Prokofiev-aholic and have one or more versions, I suspect this version will be so balanced that you might well profit from adding it to your collection.

Well recommended.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Charles Villiers Stanford, Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Alberto Bologni, Christopher Howell

For many years, in fact up until recently, the only music I'd been able to hear of Charles Villiers Stanford (1854-1924) was a few scattered choral works. By a not especially detailed look at such music I thought of Stanford as maybe a little Elgar-like, slightly stodgy and Victorian? In fact when you listen closely to Elgar that view is not uniformly warranted, so also Stanford.

In Stanford's case I was disabused of the notion by a number of  new recordings--devoted to an in-depth view of his choral works and of his chamber output, lately especially of Christopher Howell's Three Volume, nine CD Complete Piano Music (See for example my Nov. 2, 2017 Blog Post.)

What I discovered in these new releases was the relatively untold story of a major figure in the English Modern Compositional Renaissance--not at all Modern in our accepted sense but neither all that Romantic. And not so stodgy, either.

That impression is born out by the welcome addition of a three-CD set of his Complete Works for Violin and Piano (Sheva Sh 100). Pianist Christopher Howell seems perfectly suited for the music, as he did for the solo piano works. His partner for this project is violinist Alberto Bologni, who acquits himself in a fine manner as well.

The music is nicely straightforward, tuneful, lyrical at times, never pretentious, not primarily virtuoso-oriented, a sort of English Chabrier in the focus on musicality. The folk and folk dance related pieces are the most charming but there too are some very nice moments of unvarnished song and instrumental singing. I imagine this might have made quite attractive salon music at the time.  Today it stands out as remarkably down-to-earth music, not exactly fragile and sometimes robust yet also un-mawkishly tender too. Some of the rhapsodistic music veers firmly into Romanticism yet it does so almost folkishly and not at all idiomatically.

In this way the music transcends era to be patently timeless. Yet it is very much of its time. In this music we can hear what for Stanford was a stance on being Anglo, on being an English composer that we now can see was in the air as a result. It helps explain and situate the very individual furtherance of a local style in the music of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton and the rest. Plus it is very enjoyable music in its own right. There are no great strides taken harmonically, nor are dissonances a factor, understandably. Yet too it is a definite break from any traces of Germanic Romanticism and a freeing up of the local to be itself.

So in the end I cannot but recommend this set to anyone who seeks to ground fully in the origins of the Modern English Renaissance. The works here are delightful in themselves. It is a freshening of your usual fare, no matter what that fare might be. So listen.


Friday, April 13, 2018

Sarah Nemtsov, Amplified Imagination

Sarah Nemtsov (b. 1980) has High Modernist cachet in my mind. I feel this way after happily exploring thoroughly her recent album Amplified Imagination (Wergo 7366 2). There are five compositions, each making use of conventional instruments along with electronic alterations and re-presentations. Each performed-recorded work occupies its own special world.

It is a multiple worldscape that opens up sonic possibilities that ever differ, that are a product of an ever-evolving dialectic between organic tones and their transformations. The ear catching opening "White Eyes Erased" sounds more musique concrete than instrumental at some points, then relatively untransformed things like a drum set come into the sound envelop dialoging  performativity and effectively for a while with the concretized sounds. Then drums and transformations give way to other envelopes, special messages to the listener in sequence. (As a drummer-percussionist myself I perk up with such sounds.)

So on the other spectrum of possibilities we have "zimmer I-III" which is a little more directly chamber-like with eight musicians including laptop players-transformers, amplified harp and amplified string quartet. Transformed sounds are integrated, as in a way another instrumental voice than a totally transformed ambient-timbral whole. Yet the music thrives on extended techniques so it is never a for-granted sonics. Never that.

"Implicated Amplification" for amplified bass clarinet and three effect pedals is redolent and bursting with beautiful instrumentality, so to speak. Ms. Nemsov supplies that snakelike agility of an instrument with repeating patterns and timbral intersections both thoughtful and moving.  It is a good example of what makes Sarah Nemtsov special. There is imaginative deliberation to all of these works. You feel after listening that there is a very alive somebody behind the contemplative and often extroverted sounds.

I would say to you after listening many times, I would say listen to this without fail if you hold High Modernist and "Free" sounding music in high esteem. It is in its own way a triumph of sound over silence.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 12-17 (original versions), Carlo Grante

Just how much piano music there is by Franz Liszt can be approximated by the fact that Naxos is now at Volume 48 of their complete set! There is no apparent let-off. This volume plays to me and I cannot help but smile as I listen for the sixth time. It, to be specific, is a recording of the Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos.12-17 (Original versions) (Naxos 8.573784). The pianist is Carlo Grante, who is not out to prove just how flashy he can be, and that is a good thing if we want to assess the original treatment and not merely be dazzled.

So what have we to gain from hearing these prototypical versions? The Hungarian Rhapsodies can be profitably seen as one of the first significant forays into "nationalism" in the classical fold, which nowadays we might boil down to the use of "native" ethnicity or folk materials as the basis of a new music. It was never entirely something out of the blue, since someone like a Haydn was known to incorporate local thematic materials into his music--for example a string quartet appropriating the theme from what later most unfortunately became identified with the Nazi's as "Deutschland Uber Alles." And let us not forget how Renaissance composers often imported local songs of the day into their contrapuntal works--"L'Homme Arme" being a favorite in Masses of the time.

All this to say that perhaps the nationalist element is secondary in our modern minds to the folk appropriation? If Bartok utilized Romanian elements in some of his works, are we to quibble that this cannot be the same thing since he was not Romanian? It seems wrong-headed. By the way, I reviewed a disk with some of Bartok's Romanian-themed works in a review on here a short time ago. Look at the contents index on the right.

That an aside, but it nevertheless serves to situate Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies for us as "ethnically specific" music, and most importantly excellent music for all that. The original versions of Nos. 12-17 have all the thematic charm of the ones now much more well-known to us. What maybe is most telling in the early settings is how the treatment is not exactly typical compared to the later way Liszt developed a virtuoso pianistic style that became so influential from that point forward. Listen to some of Keith Jarrett's solo recitals patiently and you hear eventually how it is still with us. The earlier Liszt Rhapsodies are a kind of un-self-conscious approach that perhaps aims at a musicality not entirely virtuoso-centered, or alternately not always quite typical of Liszt's codified later virtuoso style.

In this way and also because the varied treatment is distinct enough to give great pleasure in its own right. anyone who loves Liszt would benefit from having these versions ready to hand. Having also the related "Magyar Dalok," another alternate version of the 10th Rhapsody and "Puszta Wehmut" are all welcome additions.

In short there is much good listening to be had here. Those who know and love the Rhapsodies in the famous versions will find this a delightful alternative. And in any event the performances and obscurities make for welcome fun and enlightenment. So grab this as you may.