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Friday, October 20, 2017

Chevere, Cuban-American New Music Collaborations

Ansonica Records continues to create situations of Cuban-American confluence, collaborative projects that bring together US composers and Cuban composers and instrumentalists. Chevere (Ansonica 0005) documents a January 2017 session where a sense of adventure holds sway and leads to consistently interesting results.

The tone is set decidedly with Arthur Gottschalk's "Imagenes de Cuba," a chamber work based upon the familiar "Peanut Vendor" theme. From there we have the always absorbing John A. Carollo and his "In Your Hour of Need," a wonderful piece that combines Cuban rhythmic roots with a freewheeling new music attitude. The results are uncanny yet decidedly right.

We go from there to another five works, all interesting and at times surprisingly unexpected, such as Meira Warshauer's two Jewish-tinged amalgamates, "Akhat Sha'alti" and "Oseh Shalom." Further on we have notable contributions by J.A. Jawarsky, Miguel Matamoros & Moises Simons, and Mona Lyn Reese.

It all makes creative use of the frisson that can result when cultural intersections connect with creative symmetry and contrast.

A very rich and rewarding experience can surely be had with the program. Viva!

Leo Ornstein, Complete Violin Sonatas, Hebraic Fantasy, Three Flute Pieces, Francesco & Stefano Parrino, Maud Renier

The figure of composer Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) remains obscurely but constantly visible on the Euro-American scene if one looks carefully for his music. A Russian Jew born in present-day Ukraine, he came to the United States (New York) in 1906, where by around 1920 he was the enfant terrible of modernism, as a composer and pianist. Then he abruptly abandoned his concert career and went on to teach. His music faded from the limelight and he lived out his long life in relative obscurity.

His music nevertheless still speaks to us. Some of it is tonal and late romantic, some of it daring and boldly dissonant. In the recent Complete Violin Sonatas (Brilliant Classics 95079) we get both Ornstein styles, the modern iconoclast and the romantic lyricist. The soaring violin component is a constant, the piano element determining largely which of the two creative poles are dominant in any moment, and sometimes, as in the "Hebraic Fantasy," there is an uncanny commingling of both elements and Jewish tonality with a decidedly expressive flourish. 

We hear his two published Sonatas, the Hebraic Fantasy and an Op. Posth. Third. It gives us a long listen to how he looked at the violin-piano totality. And then as a bonus we also get "Three Pieces for Flute and Piano," which takes flight in a middle ground halfway between the avant and the romantic.

And in all of it the modernist and the expressionist are at the forefront, neither the one nor the other having absolute reign. And there is the Jewish-folk element present, too.  The performances are uniformly excellent. It is a valuable addition to the Ornstein discography. It may not be a demonstration disc for his radical modernist side, but then again it gives us a balanced look at his overall thrust and appeals uniformly as good music. Recommended.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Alexey Wladimerowich Stanchinsky, Piano Works, Ekaterina Derzhavina

It is a truth albeit an obvious one: you never know until you know. We know that by living our lives. And listening. Someone a while ago might have advised me to listen to the Piano Works (Profil Edition Gunter Hanssler 170003). Hearing is believing, in the end. And the results reveal a composer of original, somewhat eccentric and unexpected stature. Alexey Wladimerowich Stanchinsky (1888-1914) died at just age 26 at the start of a religious pilgrimage that took him just a short distance from his home. He had to wade neck-deep across a river and the exposure cut short his existence.

He was a student of Taneyev and studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory. A severe bout with mental illness undermined his health. The pilgrimage put the final punctuation on his life.  But he left behind a bold and daring series of piano works, some remarkable examples of which can be heard as played with zeal and precision by Ekaterina Derzhavina on this fine volume.

The first bars of his first opus "Zwolf Skizzen" let us know we are in for something unusual. Sorabji or Alkan come to mind, not so much as an imitation as a parallel. Then there is Mussorgsky, surely. The rest of the pieces in this startling opening salvo bear out the first impression. This is a remarkable late romantic kind of modernism that must have startled its hearers even more than it does our modern listening selves. More than 100 years later, however, we nevertheless sense we are in the presence of a unique musical voice.

The "Praeludium," "Erste Sonate," and "Lieder ohne Worte" confirm our first encounter.  Often enough there is a thoroughly "conventional" Lisztian overwrap of rhapsodic effusiveness to be heard. But even then the actual sequences can startle for the unexpected progressions or melodic directions the music takes. And that veneer can strip away and you get another look at a musical mind that strikes boldly out on then untrodden paths.  As the liner notes state about the sonata, there is a "distinct predilection for the juxtaposition of diatonic modes [instead of the customary development of chromatic harmonies]." Yes, and how they sequence is not expected either. Chords in fourths, even, but not like Scriabin. There are all kinds of things in this music that set it apart. Yet it reflects the veneer of the grand romantic piano tradition, too, when that seems appropriate. Unexpectedly, always.

The sessions come from 2004 and 2005, so my guess is this has been released before? It makes no difference. This is a revelation. Stanchinsky, had he lived, could have taken us into another universe of possibilities. Yet there is plenty to hear already in his short life's output. Ives went his very own way in the US. In Russia Stanchinsky was going somewhere bold, too. He was cut short. Thankfully we have this volume to savor. Stanchinsky may have been a well kept secret. We can now let this music out in the open. Let it breathe. Thank you, Ms. Derzhavina for giving us these beautiful performances. Thank you, Stanchinsky for your short life and its music!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

Why I am not sure. I have had some recorded version of Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3 (Naxos 8.559844) for many years. Yet upon hearing this new version by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, I am struck by why I have not been more mindful of its power and great beauty. I hear it as if for the first time. Perhaps it is in part because the fourth movement is performed in its original uncut form, it alone running some 15 minutes. It endpins the symphony in a palpably more dramatic way.

And in its longer form is becomes something more than a quotation of his seminal "Fanfare for the Common Man." It instead becomes a central thematic element.

Yet it is more than merely that. Like "Appalachian Spring," where the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" tops off the work and gives it a trajectory, yet contains all in all some of Copland's most evocative pastoral music, so too the Third is redolent with an earthy joy, at once pastoral and filled with both rural and, if you will, some of the bustling celebratory complexities of the American town. And too the "Fanfare" is a thematic culmination.

So many years later, we can be less mindful of the central role the end of WWII is meant to play out in this symphony, written in 1946. Like Shostakovich and Prokofiev did in their symphonies of this period, it expresses a relief that the struggle is over. Copland's general sanguine outlook gives us something more in the line of pure joy than his Russian counterparts may have expressed. That is only to say that Copland remained Copland, as Shostakovich and Prokofiev remained true to themselves as well.

And in all that we hear a near ideal reading of the symphony by Slatkin and the Detroit Orchestra. The placid beauty of America at peace, the bustle of renewed life and the tribute to the heroic efforts of "the common man"come together for a whole that I seem to hear cohesively as if for the first time. The longer version of the final movement helps give the work a new balance it may not have quite as readily in the version we usually hear. But Slatkin gives each element equal and detailed weight so that we come away moved and satisfied.

As a bonus we also get a nice performance of Copland's 1971 "Three Latin Sketches," which fits in as a rewarding coda to all the music here.

So that is what we have on this one. It is a version of Copland's Third that makes very musical sense out of the score, balances out expression and nuance, draws out the very powerful  totality Copland meant us to hear. It is landmark and worth the trouble, very much so.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Tippet Rise OPUS 2016, Domo

There are musical gatherings that are more than a collection of musicians addressing a body of works. There are those most welcome but also most rare of confluences, the time when magic prevails. Such was very much the case with Tippet Rise OPUS 2016 and their Domo (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 660).

The recording documents a concert held last year at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana, set on a stunningly beautiful natural and sculptural site that most apparently lends itself to inspired music making. Domo gives us a remarkable chamber music program of mostly early modern Russian chamber landmarks and a few notable other works, all performed with uniformly high caliber artistry.

Everything begins with a roaringly dramatic performance of Scriabin's "Piano Sonata No. 5," a very singularly passionate reading by Yevgeny Subdin that to me stands out as one of the most moving I've heard. It is followed by two songs and a piano work by Anton Garcia Abril, performed with care by pianist Christopher O'Riley and soprano Emily Helenbrook.

O'Riley then joins with cello master Matt Haimovitz for a ravishing version of Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise." Then we are treated to an infectiously joyful version of Stravinsky's third movement for the solo piano version of "Trois mouvements de Petrushka" played with nearly ecstatic verve by Jenny Chen.

From there we get quite stimulating versions of the second movement from his "Suite No. 1" (O'Riley and Anne-Marie McDermott, pianos) and Chopin's "Nocturne Op.15, No. 2" (Stephen Hough).

The fitting and most notable climax and finale comes with a trumpet and two piano version of Scriabin's "Poem de l'extase," with O'Riley and Svetlana Smolina on pianos and Elmer Churampi on trumpet. I've never heard the chamber version and I must say in the very capable hands of these three artists the music has all the mystery and thrust of the orchestral version but at the same time an intimacy that is different and refreshing.

So I am not one to gush about what could on the surface seem to be an ordinary concert of mostly well-trodden repertoire pieces. It isn't. The performances are marvelous, uniformly so. Anyone who cherishes the Russian early modernists will surely find this a very memorable recording.


Friday, October 13, 2017

Daniel Lentz, River of 1,000 Streams

River of  1,000 Streams (Cold Blue Music CB0050) has a logical horizontal flow that has to do with an experiential "aha" moment Daniel Lentz had while standing on the banks of the Colorado River one early morning. What he felt inspired him to conceive of this EP length work for solo piano and "cascading echoes," the latter of which appear very subtly and organically in the course of the work. Vicki Ray brings life to the part with sureness and sensitivity.

Just as you cannot step in the same river twice, you cannot hear this work each time without feeling a new aspect of what you hear. And as a reviewer, if your original article was somehow wiped out as mine was sometime this past Tuesday, you cannot write the same review twice! Technological life is filled with such temporal anomalies. We no longer need Star Trek to experience virtual worm holes in the space-time continuum. Involuntary erasure gives us all we would ever want, which in fact is very little in this case!

There is the constant of the dramatic arc of the music, beginning quietly and gradually building in developmental sequences of sostenuto shimmers of radically tonal rolls of chordal clusters that flow along river-like, adding embellishments and thematic directional cues that turn it all after all into musical syntax and not just atmospherics, though even if Lentz kept it entirely primal we would be transfixed. But no, he wants us to embrace its long sprawling arc of cosmic event unfolding as a very long whole.

This is an excellent example of the Cold Blue school of mesmeric tonality. It speaks with a sprawling yet disciplined eloquence and takes us on a trip as would a river's endless flow. Beauty is there for us. We only have to stand (or sit) and hear the music go by.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Wayne Peterson, Transformations, Prism Quartet, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

There are living US composers that you find you have missed completely, yet you can think of no good reason why. Wayne Peterson is one of those, even though he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for "The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark." My excuse perhaps is by 1992 I began a work situation that gradually ate up all my available time through 9-11 and its absolute, permanent collapse. I picked up the shreds of my life though and I slowly caught up with the very important developments in that period. Looks like I am still catching up!

Nonetheless I am very glad to make the composer's aural acquaintance  on his new collection of orchestral compositions, Transformations (BMOP Sound 1053), with the ever-essential Boston Modern Orchestra Project doing the honors under conductor Gil Rose, and the PRISM Quartet stepping in for the spotlight role on the work "And the Winds Shall Blow."

He writes complex chromatic music, high modernist shrines of intricate latticework. If you imagine Elliot Carter, and why should you not, you might put Wayne Paterson in his league, so to speak, not as some clone, but another highly individual later modern chromaticist.

That to me is an extraordinarily good thing!

In the three works on this recording, we hear Peterson at his best.

The Pulitzer Prize work "The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark" (1990) gets focused attention and we are all the better for it. It like the other works here give us a swirl of continually evolving phantasmagorias of sound, classic but evolved sound color matrixes of brilliant explosions and implosions of vivid hues and rhythmically charged musical utterances.

And with the opening works, "Transformations" (1985), "And the Winds Shall Blow" (1994), we get variational fireworks of constant refluxive reiterations and post-iterations, if you will have it.

"Winds" distinguishes itself via the welcome presence of the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, who with wind and percussion create an aura of deft interwoven complexities.

This is fabulously complicated high modernist profundity. Anyone (like me) who still thrives on the ear stretching kind of contemporaneity will take to this as exceptionally invigorating.

Modernists, do not miss!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Schoenberg, String Quartets 2 & 4, Gringolts Quartet, Malin Hartelius

The running joke has been that Wagner's music is better than it sounds. The same could be said of Arnold Schoenberg. He is recognized of course as a major pioneer in modern music, devising the 12-tone system of compositional organization and etc. But his music is not nearly as much performed or as universally loved as many other composers of his century. I would counter that his music sounds much better than what we might expect from a structural wizard. The music never sounds arid or academic, but ever inspired and genuinely human, genuinely masterful and expressive.

Unlike his pupil Webern, Schoenberg intentionally straddled the future and the present-past. His music no matter what else came out of and advanced the music of his time. Webern was no doubt the more radical in his rethinking of thematic means and avoiding direct rootedness. To note this is not to denigrate either. It is only to situate both.

An excellent way to take Schoenberg's music seriously as music is with a recent recording of his String Quartets 2 & 4 (BIS 2267) by the Gringolts Quartet with soprano Malin Harlelius joining in for the 2nd Quartet.

Both of these quartets are masterpieces of their kind.

The Second Quartet was in effect a product of a personal breakthrough, brought on in part by Mahler's abandonment of Vienna for the United States, an affair between Schoenberg's wife and an artist who was living with them, and Schoenberg's own turn to painting. It was 1907-08. The Second Quartet marks a serious turn in Schoenberg's approach, essentially away from Late Romanticism towards an expressionism that incorporates the limits of tonality and a motival intertwining that no longer quite relates to harmonic movement. The fourth movement and its incorporation of a soprano part shot outwards to what at the time were the limits of expression. It no doubt shocked its hearers in those days, but most certainly not us, those of us who have become accustomed to outward movement in modernity.

Then there is "String Quartet No. 4," which takes us ahead to 1936 and Schoenberg's exodus-exile from a toxic Nazi state. Understandably it was another trying time for the composer. This is fully mature Schoenberg, an extraordinarily complex and brilliant construction of color and motif, beautifully idiomatic string writing, and dynamic upheaval that transports one to a very rarified modern musical world.

This happens to be an excellent performance of the two quartets. The Gringolts Quartet know very much what they are about and pay close attention not just to the notes themselves, but the syntactical sense behind them. Whether you already love Schoenberg's music or need to expose yourself to the best of it to learn to love it, this release is an essential!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska

Virtually nobody who listens carefully to Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor (1901-02) (BIS 2226) these days would doubt its greatness, unless one simply does not care for his music as a whole. Yet why do many recordings of the symphony leave me with the nagging feeling that something is not right?

One of the obvious things about the 5th is true to a greater or lesser degree of all the symphonies. They do not so much sound like Beethoven, Bruckner, or Tchaikovsky at root, of course. Even though the opening theme of the symphony at hand alludes to Beethoven's 5th. It does so in such an oblique fashion as to have a similar rhythmic element, little otherwise. So too Mahler's treatment of the strings throughout the symphony. What they do in part relates to the classical-romantic tradition of what strings can do. But Mahler conceives of them in a matrix where much of the time the winds and brass are equal partners.

Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra grasp all of this beautifully and give us a truly balanced reading of the 5th. It sounds like Mahler and nothing else, exactly. The three instrumental families blend together in perfect symmetry as the score requires, yet the tender melancholy of the Adagietto lets the strings shine in their heartfull outpouring of mixed feelings.

This is a work that exemplifies the brilliance, yet also the beginning of the twilight of fin de siecle Vienna. Culturally all is still at a peak, yet the Austro-Hungarian Empire's containment of so many social-cultural subgroupings is troublesome and of course eventually the center could not hold. What "bothered" some contemporary hearers of the 5th is the inclusion-extrusion of "impure" folk ethnic elements interspersed throughout the work, Bohemian, Viennese, Slavic, Jewish strains of an earthy sort taking their place beside more classically derived thematic material. Of course this is part of what makes Mahler Mahler. The 5th has no grand choral finale ascending to high heaven, which only served I suppose to remind sceptical listeners that what remained made them uncomfortable.

Today of course we revel in such carefully intersected contrasts, such synthetic brilliances. Osmo Vanska understands all of that and gives us a sonically full, sympathetic reading of the totality that goes into Mahler's 5th. The details are everything. Not all versions of the symphony I have heard do justice to the at first perplexing jumble or elements. It is no jumble, in the end. It is all Mahler heard and embraced around him, and it is his brilliantly personal concatenation that the Minnesota plays for us so engagingly and idiomatically.

There is joy and sadness, a hazy nostalgia and a briskly contemporary Viennese encompassing of what need not be thought of as opposites, all elements taking their essential place in the artful scheme. The Minnesota Orchestra brings us the score in all its fulsomeness, with vivid sound staging and dramatically detailed balance. It is music that must be allowed to breathe. There may be divinity in its sublimity, but it is firmly of this world. Vanska feels the totality of it and brings it to us in spectacular Mahleresque ravishment.

Here is a reading that puts together what Mahler intended, true to the tabula rasa deja vu complexities and beauty. Strongly recommended!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ghost Dialogues, Chris Gekker, Trumpet, etc., Modern Chamber Music

Some music hits you from the first with a special moodiness. Enter Ghost Dialogues (Metier 28572), an album of modern chamber music featuring the very dynamic trumpet playing of Chris Gekker. He joins with pianist Rita Sloan, mezzo-soprano Claire O'Brien  and tenor saxist Chris Vedala in a program of haunting, autumnal reflections perfect for steeling oneself for the longer nights to come, or simply for deeper reflections no matter what the time of year.

The duo pairing rules with the exception of one trio. Some of the works have a solemn majesty, some a jazzy approach, all have a reflectiveness in some way, and all show Chris Gekker to be a marvelous, singing trumpet presence. Some have a modernistic edge harmonically, but all seem contemporary in the wide sense of the term.

"Fall" (2016) by Robert Gibson sets the tone with an almost aching retrospection and beauty, the piano setting up lush tapestries of sustains that the trumpet completes in kind. "Ghost Dialogues" (1993) for trumpet and tenor by Lance Holmes deepens the mood and has an open freedom that reveals vistas ahead.

Carson Cooman brings us three movements of seasonal change with his "Equinox Sonata" (2015) for trumpet and piano. A timeless feeling and a lyrical facticity makes this one stand out.

Another Lance Hulme work, "The Street has Changed" (2015), takes a reflective text and creates still more reflection for mezzo-soprano, trumpet and in the final movement offstage piano. There is space to punctuate, notes to remind us that space is not the primary element!

Two shorter goodbyes top off the program memorably, "Served Two Ways" (2011) for trumpet and tenor by David Henrick is filled with jazz lyric strength, then buzzing energy. And Kevin McKee's "Song for a Friend" (2015) for trumpet and piano gets the last word with a kind of regal, beautifully tuneful musing.

I guess you could call this one a sleeper in the best sense. It is filled with many small and less-small treasures. All performers are peak, but Chris Gekker is the very artful, brilliant constant.

It may not be what you might ordinarily seek. That is why I am here, to tell you about the things you might overlook. Do not do that with Ghost Dialogues. The brown study side of you will gravitate happily to this program.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Erik Bergman, Choral Works 1936-2000, Helsinki Chamber Choir, Nils Schweckendiek

Composer Erik Bergman (1911-2006) wrote some significant Choral Works 1936-2000 (BIS 2252). We hear a nice selection of them on today's two-CD set, as sung by the Helsinki Chamber Choir under Nils Schweckendiek.

What first impresses is the sheer quantity of quality high modern moodiness. In all we get 19 works from the long time span. There is a continuity of style, generally speaking.

Bergman lived a long life and was compositionally active for most of it. As the prominent Finnish modernist of his time, he was celebrated in his home country but less so in the world at large.

He wrote extensively for choral groups. The selection of mostly mixed choral works on the disk have not been often heard, so we are fortunate to have this set to fill out the picture of Bergman's oeuvre.

The music will certainly appeal to you if you are a modernist at heart. Bergman goes his own way. There is much to explore. Give it a listen! 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Randall Thompson, Symphony No. 2, Samuel Adams, Samuel Barber, National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, James Ross

Classical-modern American Symphonies both older and new are the fare on the release by James Ross and the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic. In the slot of primary billing is Randall Thompson Symphony No. 2 (1931) (Naxos 8.559822). Included in the volume are also Samuel Barber's "Symphony No. 1, Op. 9" (1936) and Samuel Adams' "Drift and Providence" (2012) .

It is a bit of Americana without going out of its way to be so, quasi-Nationalism without any overt gestures thematically. Thompson's Second has syncopation that is not quite jazz (of 1931) but has something of the lively rhythmic bustle of the age and place.

Samuel Barber's First has American pathos and breadth.

Samuel Adams and his "Drift and Providence" updates the quilted earthiness of American symphonic form for today yet does not insist on overt modernity.

We get a generous sampling of the symphonic form beyond the overtly romantic. All is well played by the National Orchestral Institute under Ross.

It is not music that will change your life, exactly. Nonetheless there is much pleasure to be gained in the hearing. Recommended.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Monteverdi, Madrigals Book 8, Delitiae Musicae, Marco Longhini

Throughout my life the music of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) has become increasingly central to me. Of course he was one of the beacons of early music. Although his music reflects his times there has become a point to me where his music stands alone, apart from the era, like Bach for a later period.

Feeling like I do I welcomed the chance to review a new version of Madrigals Book 8 "Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi"  (Naxos 8.573755-58) by Delitiae Musicae under the direction of Marco Longhini. The four-CD set manages to luxuriously include all the madrigals plus the lengthy 48 minute "Ballo delle ingrate."

Delitiae Musicae approaches the music with loving care and period rigor. The Ensemble vocale features nine singers used in varying combinations. Included are two countertenors and a boy soprano in keeping with performance practices. The Basso continuo comprises some nine players, including baroque harp, two theorbo and so on. Then as called for there is the Ensemble di viole da gamba (with soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass instruments). Finally there is the string section per se, the Ensemble di archi barocchi, with eight instrumentalists.

Throughout the course of the program, the continuo is a constant, the singers are assigned solo, duo, and other small configurations in contrast with the tutti passages. Similarly the ensemble instrumental groups appear variably according to the demands of the score.

The sensitive timbral period dimensions of the music bring to us an authentic and beautiful sound. All come together in varying combinations for a sterling performance in all its facets. This is later Monteverdi in full flower, with contrapuntal imitation contrasting with homophony in various Montervedian ways. As the composer states in his introduction to Book 8, the music addresses the "agitated," the "soft" and the "moderate" in ever varying sequences. Contrasts too are ever present between the "theatrical" and those numbers that are more purely musical, that are to be "sung" more than enacted.

The resultant whole that is the sequence of Book 8 has a richness and inventiveness brought out wonderfully well by Delitiae Musicae. The full effect of the totality is cumulative. By the time you come to the end, you feel you have grasped the extraordinary beauty and character of later Monteverdi with a period faithfulness that brings out the wealth of expression that marks out Book 8 as exceptional in itself.

The Naxos price just adds to the desirability and attractiveness of the set. It is a near ideal performance of music one must dwell within for a time to make it live for you. Once you do that, you are transported!

Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Howard Hersh, Dancing at the Pink House

Howard Hersh is a composer with lots of ideas, inventiveness, and an open stance as to how to position stylistically. I reviewed and loved his album of keyboard music, Angels and Watermarks (see post of March 27, 2015). The Piano Concerto showed him to be very adept and original in his "post" approach to long form, and the solo harpsichord works gave us a more intimate view.

Now we get a lot more music on the strictly chamber side of the coin, Dancing at the Pink House (Snow Leopard Music 201). The five compositions all show Hersh off as a musical poet not satisfied to remain in place, but ever to move forward.

"Madame's Tavern" (2014) opens the program with Mary Rowell on violin playing against a "phantom choir" of 15 pre-recorded violins. It is a sort of mini-concerto with a wealth of inventive signposts in a continually moving matrix both expressive and beautiful in a sometimes relatively hard-edged yet evocative manner. It leaves an impression of a lively musical mind, restless but elated.

"Loop" (2006) pits cello, piano and vibraphone in a mysterious, ostinato based blend that opens up another vista and breaks through to it with a forceful, then gentle plein air traversal. It is a landscape we simultaneously sense an uncanny deja vu with but then find much that rejuvenates our living within it. A ravishing work.

"I Love You, Billy Danger" (2012) gives us 12 minutes of solo piano music. It is a sort of aural tongue-twister with a dashingly bold modernistic flourish to it. This is quite involved and difficult to play pianism which Brenda Tom tackles heroically and effectively (as she so capably and brilliantly did on Howard's last album). It rolls forward inexorably and memorably, then abruptly hushes, only to pose a series of quiet questions, all of which have emphatic answers. Then gradually the question itself becomes the answer as it morphs into full thematic flower and onwards from there.

"Night" (2013) takes us into trio territory again, this time with clarinet, marimba and percussion. The clarinet part projects outward in a sort of post-Gershwin jazzy way. The marimba puts down a mobile wooden flooring of sorts that enables the clarinet to bound forward. The percussion subtly punctuates and colors. Momentum takes a hold with a more rhythmically vibrant marimba part that then opens up to quieter realms again.

"Dancing at the Pink House" (2006) deserves its title status with clarinet-piano folk-modern-vernacular expressions with a quietly driving motility of a dance-like sort. Ultimately the dance calms and opens up to a more lyrical introspection, ultimately to return to the motion of body-in-movement,  and in the end to take on a quotation from "America the Beautiful." Unforgettable, this is.

And that is the whole of it, or as much as I can touch upon in this framework. It is music that holds a place in your musical memory as something with a very personal, original fingerprint. It is music that continually underscores its presence in the contemporary United States, yet transcends that rootedness too with a music anyone can appreciate who has the ear to do so.

Very worthwhile! Hersh is a voice.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Toshio Hosokawa, The Raven, Charlotte Hellekant, United Instrumentation of Lucilin, Kentaro Kawase

Toshio Hosokawa is one of the premiere living Japanese composers. I have covered his music before (see the September 23, 2014 post and also that from November 3, 2011). Today we have The Raven (Naxos 8.573724), a modern-oriented work for mezzo-soprano (Charlotte Hellekant) and chamber orchestra (United Instrumentation of Lucilin under Kentaro Kawase).

It is based on Edgar Allen Poe's iconic poem. A full recitation of that is followed by Hosokawa's work, which in turned is presented in the form of a traditional Noh drama.

The music is spacious, sombre, mysterious and more or less high modernist in its sprawling expanded tonal rigor. The dark mood has a musical analogy, which is sure-footed and very atmospheric.

Mezzo-Soprano Hellekant and the United Instruments of Lucilin give us a detailed and carefully expressive reading of the work.

Poe's poem and its raven-centered theme appealed to Hosokawa for its similarity with Traditional Japanese tales, which often focus on plants and animals in dialog with human subjects. He felt that it readily lent itself to Noh dramatic treatment. For The Raven work Hosokawa transforms the narrative human subject from man to women, which also is consistent with Noh tradition. To the Western listener such elements are not readily apparent so much as there is a cogent use of aural spaciousness that Noh music shares with this work.

The composition is dedicated by the composer to Hellekant and United Instrumentation. The close rapport between music and performers is apparent and a large factor in the success of the disk. One at this point could scarce imagine a better reading.

It is a rarified music of great dramatic heft. One is given yet another chance to appreciate the breadth and scope of Hosokawa's poignant music vision. All interested in Japanese modernism today should hear this one. It is revelatory and absorbing.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Pompa-Baldi Plays Roberto Piana, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, Piano

It is never out-of-place in my listening habits to be introduced to a very modern and modern tonal pianistic composer as played by a very talented and musical pianist. This makes me a happy camper. That is the case with Pompa-Baldi Plays Roberto Piana (Centaur CRC 3563). Roberto writes for the solo piano like he really loves it and respects too the contemporary proficiency level that is state-of-the-art today. Piana works inventively and imaginatively to create very memorable modern works that have beautiful movement built in, an almost Satie-esque disarming directness, and plenty of modern spice as required though also a sophisticated harmonic-tonal playfulness.

Antonio Pompa-Baldi plays the "25 Preludi Pittorici" and the "Piano Sonata" like he was born to them. All require an integration of very evolve technique into a varied and very communicative sense of form and motival freshness.

Pompa-Baldi brings out the lyricism with care and great artistry. The quasi-impressionist dazzle and the dynamic motility of these works engage strongly thanks to the near-ideal performances. I cannot imagine that those attending to this music with care will not find much to intrigue and please.

It may be one of the sleepers of the year. Gradually you realize you are in the presence of a contemporary greatness. By all means, spend some time with this one and see if it does not grow on you!

Friday, September 22, 2017

MIND Music, Music Related to Neurodegenerative Conditions, Adams, Malone, Mendelssohn, Strauss

A most unusual volume today. MIND Music: Music Related to Neurodegenerative Conditions (Divine Art 25138) gives us four compositions on two CDs. It was an outgrowth of a concert given by clarinetists Elizabeth Jordan and Lynsey Marsh in honor of their two parents who died in 2014 from complications arising out of Parkinson's Disease. The concert was to raise money for Parkinson's UK.

This album was conceived in the same spirit. Its proceeds will go to Parkinson's UK as well. All four works on the program have something to do, as the title suggests, with neurodegenerative afflictions.

Felix Mendelssohn died at age 38, probably of a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is sometimes linked to Parkinson's. His "Concert Piece No. 1 in F Major, Op.113" for clarinet, basset horn and orchestra has nothing directly to do with his ultimate end, nor need it. It apparently came about via Felix's craving for Bavarian dishes, which were unavailable to him while he lived in Berlin. A deal was struck with the father-son clarinet soloists Heinrich and Carl Baermann. They would prepare two of Felix's favorites, steamed dumplings and sweet cheese strudel, and he would at the same time write them a concert piece they could perform on tour. Hearing the work so nicely performed by Jordan, Marsh and the Northern Chamber Orchestra, I would imagine that the clarinet duo were on the winning end of the deal. It is a delight to hear.

The work that follows, Richard Strauss's "Sonatina No. 1 in F Major for 16 Wind Instruments 'From an Invalid's Workshop'" was a product of the period following Strauss's completion of the opera "Capriccio" in 1942, after which he vowed to compose no more. He broke that vow regardless with some very beautiful music. The Sonatina was one such work, written while Strauss suffered from a series case of influenza and also was in depression, the latter in part because of the wartime destruction of the Munich Court Theater, which had important associations for him. The music is bracing and in turn regretful. The performance is quite worthwhile to hear.

The central work of this program to my mind is John Adams' "'Gnarly Buttons' for Clarinet and Small Orchestra."  It has much to do with his clarinet-playing father, who succumbed to Alzheimer's. The music is magical, with ordered variations on cellular motives but also a sort of quasi-naive, folk quality that reflected his father's involvement with marching band music (as well as jazz and classical). His decline is reflected in the music as well.

Kevin Malone's "The Last Memory" for Solo Clarinet comes out of his experience with his father and the degeneration from Alzheimer's he endured. His father's struggle to differentiate from current events and the memories of past events has thematic implications in the realization of the work for clarinet and digital delay as a sort of mind as echo chamber, where past memories recur in the mind again and again, creating an internal state as strong or even stronger than external real-time presence. It is a haunting work and well done for all that.

In sum this is very worthwhile music. The Adams work alone is worth the price of admission. Yet all of it fascinates and pleases. And you will be helping Parkinson's UK!

So go for it.

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.