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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.






Wednesday, April 11, 2018

John Ogdon, Original Piano Works, Tyler Hay

John Ogdon (1937-1989)? You may remember him as a concert pianist. I had (and still have?) his RCA recording of Carl Nielsen's piano music. He was a pianist of great interpretive power. Many may not realize that he was a composer of brilliance, completing more than 200 works in between the demands of his concert career.

We have a chance to appreciate some of his remarkable music on the recent Original Piano Works (Piano Classics PCL10132). On it Tyler Hays tackles Ogdon's very technically demanding and dramatic works with genuine aplomb. I was in the dark about Ogden's music until this. I surely am no longer!

All you need do is put on the CD and listen to the first work there, "Sonata 'Dedicated to my friend Stephen Bishop'".  It is piano music that dramatically enacts a special passion through an intimate understanding of the piano beneath the composer's hands. There is Ivesian brinkmanship, Sorabji-Scriabin-Alkanesque-Ornsteinian Promethean demands on the pianist, and a very convincing modern internal bite that allows for cascading dissonances and structural consonance contrasts. As you listen you grasp the tone-succession syntax as music-speak of a high order. There is a commanding pianist presence to this work that Tyler Hay takes to like duckwater takes to ducks! It is a momentary shock to hear this music for the first time. And indeed subsequent listens fully bear out the first impressions and deepens them.

That initial inner feeling does not at all dissipate in the subsequent program of an additional three works substantial and invigorating. There are some remarkable chromatic fugal mazes happily to negotiate and a good deal else to savor as well. I feel no let down as I listen repeatedly to his "Ballade," his "Kaleidoscope No. 1 (6 Caprices)" and his "Variations and Fugue."

Ogdon is a real discovery for me. If you listen to this program and its excellent performances I think you will be as pleasantly startled as I have been. Make no mistake! If you love a modern piano world as I do, you will feel right at home with Original Piano Works. The music is a modern wonder and the performances nothing short of heroic. Deliberately slapdash piano profundity never sounded so well!


Monday, April 9, 2018

Beethoven, String Quartets, Op. 18 nos. 1-3, Eybler Quartet

When cognoscenti speak of the string quartet literature, they often mention Beethoven's late quartets as a watermark of the greatest and deepest works in the history of the medium. Yet of course his early and middle quartets are landmark works that do not fail to enchant and delight. If the early works have an affinity with Josef Haydn's quartets, it is in the way they embody structural integrity of the highest sort while expressing a beautifully balanced expressivity. If they do not probe the deepest levels of brooding introspection or climb ecstatic heights of bliss, they adroitly balance affect and ever transforming musical architecture in ways that already point to a very personal way of expression.

So we very happily have a new version of Beethoven's String Quartets Op. 18 nos. 1-3 (CORO Connections  COR16164). The Eybler Quartet give us their own singular readings of the first three quartets of the six that comprise Op. 18.

The liners to this fine recording alert us to the unusual repertoire stance of the Eybler Quartet which explains in part the unusually special reading they give these works. That is, that their repertoire sees the Beethoven Quartets as the end-point in a spectrum of possibilities for the group to master. And the notes' assertion that this view of Beethoven is "from the other side" of the timeline is telling. So too one might expect their view of the Op. 18 works would be supremely Classical and less Romantic than some well known versions we have had the pleasure to hear over the years, in my case especially the Budapest Quartet recordings. And that is very true.

It is a reverse engineered Op 18 that has a brio that is more mercurial and intimate than emotion drenched. There is a subtle buoyancy to their readings, a most refreshing underplaying and removal of vibrato except for contrast in phrasings and for variable timbral presence. It seems more appropriate today to hear  a less anguished, less heart-on-sleeve gushing quality in these works. And it is not to say that these readings are without feeling. They are quite feelingful. They just do not blubber so much. They do not so much openly weep as they quietly sigh. Eybler's togetherness and technical brilliance, too, are absolutely thrilling. That brilliance enables them to accentuate the near playfulness of the allegro movements, the quasi-Viennese folkish Beethoven, the contrast between sincere tenderness and bracingly swift flight.

I will not go on at length about the myriad virtues of the music and its special presence with the Eybler Quartet. These are versions that serve as a critically righteous introduction to the three quartets in Beethoven's beautiful first efforts toward his very individual vision of the fourness string world. It also will be a most worthwhile addition to the collection of those who already know and love these works, for these versions give you insight into what the quartets are deep down and on their dazzling surfaces. Heartily recommended.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Bruckner, Sinfonie Nr. 9, Carlo Maria Giulini, Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Stuttgart Des SWR

Anton Bruckner's music came out of himself almost in spite of his everyday personality. He was a devout Catholic, a soul so timid that when an orchestra was running through one of his symphonies and a player questioned what note he was supposed to play, Bruckner was said to have responded, "whatever you'd like." He probably never even kissed a woman, which back then could have meant anything except a boldness, surely. No doubt in our modern, more canderous parlance he never kissed a man, either. His music was in many ways the opposite of his personality, except perhaps his devoutness, which was key. The music is of course bold and assertive with a cosmic hugeness far beyond most of the music others created during his lifetime, or even afterwards. His was the music not about God, or from God, it was God. Only Mahler in a certain mood could rival him for his huge cosmoses of God-like sound.

That is so much the case that when I threw an "end-of-the-world" party as Three-Mile Island seemed to be cataclysmically melting down not far away from us, I immediately chose Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 as one of the soundtracks. The maelstrom of music that is the 9th seems truly like the Voice of God to me, as much as one might imagine such things.

Given my life-long appreciation of this work, I do not shy away from versions yet unheard. So today we have the "Original SWR Tapes, 1996" of Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the 9th with the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Stuttgart des SWR (SWR Classic 19411CD).

It is a version that is markedly well-paced and deliberate, in no hurry to race along and fill two sides of an LP. And that is all for the best. Giulini's cosmos does not unfold rapidly, so that each section comes to a predetermined weight without haste, in a heavenly canopy that need not arrive anywhere according to a set timetable.

Bruckner of course is one of the weightiest composers in terms of large orchestral girth and a stoic refusal to entertain so much as bring a heavenly world to light, to the light, to life.

It strikes me on the 9th that many would-be Minimalists could learn from Brucker how repetition and periodicity could still take on a developmental forward momentum that avoids what in some hands is the mediocrity of the banal. Motivic cells germinate, spin around a vortex, then develop without  obvious, filler sorts of sequencing. The 9th has this wondrously spinning quality to it at times, sometimes as slowly as a huge cosmos of bulk like the heavenly material canopy of stars above us or of large sections of the universe that slowly turn in on themselves. One way to look at it is that Bruckner takes the leitmotif idea from Wagner and looks at it like a mass of cosmic frisbees.  He spins them in slo-mo throughout his musical universe, spiralling, mutating, sequentially jettisoning their way through an eternity that only lasts (practically) for over an hour. What glory is to be heard  in this opening up of aural things to our manifold listening experience! Seriously.

The deliberate interpretation Giulini gives us lends itself well to the stately,  ponderous spin of the music of the spheres as Bruckner hears it. And we can now perhaps gauge later Bruckner not just as some sort of obviously exploded Wagner. It is also music that hears in the heavens a spinning that post-High Modernism too hears in its own way.

Of necessity Bruckner could not really be the voice of God. So he is in a way the ultimate ventriloquist. God in this lushly, grandly exciting canopy is really the voice of Bruckner impersonating God! I can think no better (but a few equally) convincing versions of this most remarkable work and what it is doing.

I recommend this work as essential, this version as utterly proper and majestically uber-grand!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Mieczyslaw Wajnberg (Weinberg), String Quartets Nos. 8, 9 & 10, Silesian Quartet

The story of why it has taken this long truly to appreciate the gifts of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (or Wajnberg in the Polish spelling) (1919-1996) has been told plenty of times on these blog pages and need not detain us. The very short answer might be simply Stalin. Weinberg was a Polish Jew forced into exile to Russia in WWII and the Social Realism dictates of the Soviet Union at the time were not conducive to what Weinberg was about as a composer. It's more complicated than that but that will do for now.

The incredibly prolific Weinberg completed 17 String Quartets. They, as most quartets in the Modern Era, can be looked down upon as formalist-subjectivist by a rabid Stalinist realism.  Accordingly the quartets were tainted by suspicion in the early years of life in his adopted homeland. That initial ill-will  put the quartets under a cloud in the years that followed.Yet there is extraordinary music to be heard there.  And Social Realism after all is a rather reductionist and delusional approach to what music is all about. Any theoretical approach that bans Weinberg has to be rejected. It is dead wrong.

The excellent Silesian Quartet brings to us state-of-the-art performances of Weinberg's String Quartets Nos. 8, 9 & 10 (Accord ACD 241-2). The incredible beauty of the opening adagio for Quartet No. 8 lets us know just how special these quartets are. They are a product of Weinberg's middle years, the first from 1959 when he was around 40, the others follow in succession, 1963 and 1965.

The liners to the CD make cogent mention of the autobiographical elements that appear in many of the quartets. The notes describe in 1963 the premiere Polish performance of any of his music, of  the Quartet No. 8, which at the time seemed insufficiently Modern to the audience, aside from the spice of some dissonance. They were used to the High Modern search for new sonarities and innovations in form, and Weinberg was more concerned with a music that was "intensely emotional, usually melancholy, dramatic at times." Such is the substance of these quartets, intensely Expressionistic, closer to a Shostakovich (a Jewish one for all that) than someone like early Penderecki.

From the vantage point of today, many will embrace these quartets for the reason that they are not Avant leaning. I myself feel that the addition of Weinberg should not be seen as a need to subtract early Penderecki, Boulez or Stockhausen. We can enrich ourselves all the more by allowing both musical visions to occupy our attention.

There are deeply introspective moments in all three quartets. Compared with a Prokofiev, Weinberg is a shade more bitter than bittersweet. And in some regards he is almost unrelenting in his serious outlook. We have generally seen such approaches to quartet writing from later Beethoven on, and perhaps after a time we will come to see the Weinberg cycle as we do the Bartok, the Shostakovich, the Carter, the later Beethoven works?

It is a moot point for the moment to me. What counts is to recognize the three middle quartets as very worthwhile and deeply absorbing listens, especially in these superb Silesian Quartet performances.

A sober sadness gets an equally emphatic and perhaps slightly macabre folk dance rejoiner as we follow movement-to-movement and recognize the depth of all we hear on this program. There is a definite temperament in play in the Weinberg ethos. The picture as conveyed by his music is seldom exactly rosy. The events in his life gave him plenty of cause to feel that way. And we can  appreciate the beautiful way he chose to express his temperament-biography in these quartets. Emotions are not funneled into musical expression in a one-size-fits-all manner. If they were music would be rather boring, wouldn't it? The triumph of Weinberg the composer is the triumph of invention over all personal obstacles. We can only rejoice at the results in this volume. Essential.




Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Breath Upwards, Ah Young Hong Sings Works by Milton Babbitt and Michael Hersch

Powerful High Modernism today from vocalist Ah Young Hong on the recent CD A Breath Upwards (Innova 986). The album features two brilliant and dramatic American works, one by Milton Babbitt and one by Michael Hersch, of course both major voices in New Music avantism past and present. From Babbitt there is "Philomel" (1964) for soprano and computer electronics; from Hersch the title work (2014)  for soprano and chamber ensemble.

Both scores call for dramatic and demanding soprano roles. Ah Young Hong is a phenomenal vocalist best associated with Hersch's operatic monodrama On the Threshold of Winter. Her pitch and timbre control are outstanding and the dramatic verve she brings to the music is exactly what is needed to put these works in an ideal place.

The Babbitt piece was created out of three critical intersections, as the liner notes to the CD so helpfully and eloquently point out. The behemoth RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer entered the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1957 as Milton Babbitt's special charge. Babbitt's complex inventions via the cumbersome contraption helped define his musical life. And so that Synthesizer forms the canvas backdrop for "Philomel." So too his coming under the spell of the soprano virtuoso Bethany Beardslee was critical. She could perform virtually anything he might envision and make it musical and nuanced. She commissioned the work that we hear now. The final piece of the puzzle was supplied by poet-librettist John Hollander. He complemented Babbitt in his virtuoso grasp of language and his musical understanding.

Out of this we hear in this Hong performance version what it all came to. It is firey and openly dramatic. The very difficult soprano part is squarely situated  on Hong's familiar turf and she shows us how to do it poetically right.

The Hersch work relates to the Babbitt in the way it uses a wide vertical musical space to carve out dramatic declamation and set mood. The instrumentation is surprisingly full sounding with viola, clarinet and horn manipulating the sound and pitch color possibilities of the three instruments against the bold and expressive soprano part.

The text is from Pound's Cantos. The music-text intersection is typical of Hersch's brilliant reworking of the high modernist possibilities to suit his own expressive needs. Each part of this remarkable whole fits wonderfully well with the other elements. So a very musical three-instrument scoring paces perfectly with the vocal lines. These two elements conjoin with text for a most meaningful whole. As with Hersch at his best, the style on the surface comes out of the High Modernist cannon. You listen more and nearly at once there emerges Hersch the consummate and moving voice for today. That stays with you long after the music is concluded.

These are landmark performances of two landmark works we need to take into account, appreciate, enjoy, explore.

Monday, April 2, 2018

George Enescu, Bela Bartok, Rhapsodie Roumaine

With the rise of so-called Nationalism beginning in the later 19th century and onwards, the new importance of local folk forms to the Modern Classical world became obvious, yet often enough remained  in an almost autonomous independance to Modernism itself. Both fed off each the other, yet could go separate ways at times while maintaining a contemporaneous existence, a  happenstancial presence in the present.

An excellent example of the interplay between folk and contemporary can be found in the musics of George Enescu (1881-1955) and Bela Bartok (1881-1945). Both were born in the same year and lived within a time frame that was identical, save an extra ten more living years for Enescu. Both also made extensive, pioneering use of Eastern European folk forms.

It is to the exceptional folk-based recreative music we turn with the recent volume Rhapsodie Roumaine (SoloMusica 277). On it we are treated to six compositional sets or individual works by the two, all centered around the vibrant reworking of Romanian folk moods, the rhapsody as reconceived in Modern-Post-Romantic terms. Authentic Romanian tonality-melody in the quasi-Gypsy expressive idiom makes powerful contact with the extraordinarily fertile imaginations of the two.

It is a mix of the familiar and less familiar, the classics and the reworked classics, the discoveries, the more obscure.

Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody No. 1" gets a new version for piano quartet, while his exceedingly beautiful "Sonata No. 3 for Violin in A minor" receives near-ideal treatment by Gilles Apap on violin and Diana Ketler on piano. They do an exceptional job as well on the Bartok "An Evening in the Village" for violin and piano, and his equally stunning "Romanian Folk Dances. Sz. 56" for violin and piano. To top it off we hear Bartok's "Duos for Two Violins" arranged for two violas, plus the recently rediscovered Enescu "Nocturne 'Ville d'Avrayen'" for piano quartet.

The music has enough modernity that you would never mistake any of it for 19th-century fare. And there is an exceptional folk detail that keeps it well out of the sort of quasi-patronizing popularizations you might encounter in earlier works of a pre-revival kind.

The performances are uniformly sensitive and flamboyant as needed. The music is a joy and each piece fits fully into the thematic matrix to create a highly cohesive whole. Very recommended!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Kreu Zungen, Vassos Nicolaou, Johannes Schollhorn, Gerard Grisey, Dieter Mack

If life sometimes turns a blind eye to the main chance, music will always remain as a solace. And for those of you with High Modernist sympathies, solace is not far away. It resides on a CD called Kreu Zungen (Wergo Edition Musikfabrik 13). Pellucid, beautifully pellucid music from four composers in the New Music echelon I have neither heard, nor heard of. Obliquely relevant to this music and its hearing is the term  Klangfarbenmelodie, giving the melody to more than one instrument to color the sound, literally sound color melody. To the extent that this music has melody, and in a way it is all melody, it is pronouncedly klangfarben in the best ways. It is what Impressionism strived for, something that arguably bests delivers when conventional step-side and orderly melodics are supplanted by a whirlwind of color splattering onto our receiving aural apparatus!

Three of the four works here enjoy World Premiere Recordings. None of the four are the least bit tentative or undirected. Far from that. Each work has spectral presence, pellucidly powered by the excellently muscular, yet klangfarben driven krustophany of Ensemble Musikfabrik? Yes, how else could I put it?

I am being slightly playful today, yet quite seriously this music is a rather wonderful grouping of decent-sized chamber ensemble music that takes the idea of sound color and extends it so nicely that you want or I want anyway to hear it many times. It stays with you as devilishly fascinating and utterly forward reaching sounds of great beauty. The beautiful can still exist on the New Music front and these works in vivid performance tell you how that can be.

And so I do very much recommend you hear these four composers: Vassos Nicolaou and his "Farbenmaschinen," Johannes Schollhorn and his "Pieces Croisees," Gerard Grisey and his "Partiels" and Dieter Mack and his "Kammermusik V."

It all fits together as parts of a whole, the whole being what new SOUNDS the New Music can continue to give us. That is a project very dear to my heart and so the hearing of this makes me feel like there most surely IS a future for High Modernist sound sculpting. Outstanding disk!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Arnold Rosner, Orchestral Music, Volume Two, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Nick Palmer

One thing is for sure, in the New Music world nothing is sure as we  live through the present. In 100 years we may see a very different picture. Right now, there are so many excellent voices either underrepresented or heretofore unknown, or just getting recognition, or whose status is uncertain. Where will they all fit? How many Bachs will emerge from underneath our Telemannic evening of the musical soil-soul? Any? Many? In the end for us it is not about certifying the new Bach(s) so much as it is a matter of making sure we have heard all the voices. Without a hearing, how can the music speak to us?

With that in mind I always try to audition New Music by composers I have missed one way or another, so that perhaps the process of sifting through leads us to happy discoveries and surprises. On that very note I said "sure" to the opportunity to hear Arnold Rosner (1945-2013), specifically his Orchestral Music, Volume Two (Toccata Classics 0465).

And as I emerge from the intensive listening of said album I must say I am beguiled, impressed with Rosner's true vision and orchestrational grasp.

Three compositions provide three appealing and dynamic musical worlds.

"Five Ko-ans for Orchestra, Op. 65" (1976) ia an ambitious 30-or-so minutes, five movements of lush adventure, modern in its harmonic edginess, bold with an eroicist-and-beyond, almost Beethovian grandeur.

"Unraveling Dances, Op. 122" (2007) takes a strong undercurrent of Ravel's "Bolero" and heads into rhythmically consistent dance forms that veer definitively into an original matrix.

"The Parable of the Law, Op. 97" (1993) gives us a mysterioso setting of the Kafka text and Chrisopher Burchette's well burnished baritone for a mood that reminds slightly of Vaughan Williams and his ever-evocative evocations. This not in some obvious way. Rather it sounds well and Rosneresque in its own way. It is an orchestral maze of tone and text, of a searching for meaning and understanding, a question not unanswered so much as as endlessly answered with the more of it ever.

Listing to this volume a good number of times, I emerge with a clear sense of the Rosner musical personality, not so much a cross-section of a number of modern developments and the past, instead a conscious refashioning from what has been and a fertile inventive imagination. Nick Palmer and the London Philharmonic give us impressive and heartfelt readings of the works. Very recommended.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Camillo Togni, Complete Piano Music 4, Aldo Orvieto

Just because we have some knowledge of the music of a place and time does not mean we truly have a representative sample in our heads of it. Of the Italian music scene around WWII and beyond for various reasons I do not I admit have a complete grasp of the composers who went on despite political developments and/or after them. Camillo Togni (1922-1993) is a name I know very little, for example. Yet the CD volume Complete Piano Music 4 (Naxos 8.573431) makes it plain that I have been missing out on an important figure.

The blurb on the CD back is useful. It says that the music reflects Togni's rethinking of 12-tone technique, chromatic harmony and lyricism. Fine. The blurb calls Togni "progressive and fiercely independent." Good words.

So the music bears out those words. This is not the 12-tone music of early Schoenberg, surely. It is expressive, it IS lyrical, it has a kind of passion, a personal vision, yet too it is in no way Romantic, but rather of its time, and also of a sort of balance that weighs each element in a sort of quasi-Baroque evenspinning.

The works on this disk all fall into that period described above, 1940-44. There are six compositions or sets of compositions in toto. There is "Suite, Op. 14a," "Serenata No. 2, Op. 11," Quattro Pezzi per pianoforte, Op. 22," "Serenata No. 4, Op. 15," "Serenata No. 5, Op. 18," and "Valtzer (ad usum Lyae)." None of these sound "Modern Generic," to say the least. All are permeated with a special sensibility and dynamic, brought out rather spectacularly well by pianist Aldo Orvieto. The cover tells us that these are "World Premier Recordings." And all the better for that because I find the music extraordinarily convincing.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So too, for the modest cost of a Naxos release, you can immerse yourself in some truly outstanding Italian Modernism, with the fresh fingerprint ID of a rather tragically underappreciated Camillo Togni. It makes me want to hear the other volumes, surely, and for that matter whatever else there is.

That should tell you something about how I feel about this volume. Listen closely! It is worth your time.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Ligeti, Complete Etudes, Kei Takumi

One of the giants of Modernism, Gyorgy Ligeti is the kind of titan whose every work probably should be heard. Yet I have to admit there are many I have not as of yet. His Etudes Pour Piano (Sheva Collection 183) seems as good an example as any of a part of Ligeti that one should know. In this complete recording pianist Kei Takumi tackles these technically daunting works head-on. And with Ligeti, ever, no notes are there for no reason. The difficulties are put in front of the performer ever for a musical result. It is a great credit to Kei Takumi that he sees in the masses of black notes a way they must be sounded for energetic, expressionistic significance. And he handles the quiet, contrasting sections with sensitivity and proper intent.

The Etudes consist of three groupings: A Premier livre (1984-85), a Deuxieme livre (1988-94) and a Troisieme livre (1995-2001). Together they function as a wide interconnected expanse, densely racing ahead, then thoughtfully pausing, then bursting forward again, creating a matrix of dynamic excitement one simply has to experience because words cannot supplant or ever quite approximate how it feels to hear the music. It is a kind of Promethean struggle of solitary  human with an otherwise inert mass of wood, metal, ivory and whatever else, the piano being something of vast potential that Ligeti provides a key to, the mastery of which is formidable and not for the untalented and technically unprepared. This is music that will not be sight read with any hope of the revelatory. It is music to sink into over a long period of time. That is as true for the performer as it is to the listener. You do not just throw this music on and go about your business. That surely won't do.

Instead, pay attention. Let the sounds wash over you and after a few listens you will know that you are in the presence of something profound. I recommend you do that.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Martinu, Saltimbanques, Songs 5, Jana Hrochova, Giorgio Koukl

One surprising thing about the songs of Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). They show a very different side of the composer as compared with, say, his orchestral works. I have reviewed volumes in the song series on Naxos (type his name in the search box above) and now there is a fifth, Saltimbanques, Songs 5 (Naxos 8.573823). Mezzo-Soprano Jana Hrochova and pianist Giorgio Koukl do the honors on this volume, and they sound just right for it all.

What this volume has in abundance, as much or even more so than the Volume 4 I reviewed here, is an intimate Martinu that is modern yet almost completely outside of the Martinu style of his larger ensemble pieces. The music is more direct and at times very Eastern European-Czech folk oriented.

Some of the music here is quite rare, unrecorded, some believed lost until recently. None of it is ephemeral or ancillary. And it brings to us a Martinu we may not know well, but in its unpretentious way is essential, as essential as the more famous and spectacular works.

Get this if you value Martinu.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Piano a Deux, France Revisited, Music by Onslow, Debussy, Poulenc

What makes French music "French"? Is there something in common between the music of Rameau, say, and that of Messiaen? It is almost a ridiculous question since there is so much music that has been created by French composers over the years that it is too much to expect it all to conform to some hypothetical model. Yet one thing one might make note of is the the lyricism of much of the music--a lyricism that is never quite Romantic in some Germanic way, even with someone like Berlioz? Yes, I generally think that.

This morning for my blog discussion I have a program of French works by the Piano a Deux group, namely Robert and Linda Ang Stoodley, entitled France Revisited (Divine Art 25132). The works featured are not especially standard fare, all being music for four hands at one piano with the exception of one piece, which is for two-handed piano solo.

The inclusion of two works by George Onslow (1784-1853) is as unexpected as it is rewarding. He wrote an extraordinary amount of chamber music including 36 String Quartets and 34 String Quintets! The "Sonata for Piano Four-hands, No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 7" is masterful and strong, and the "Six Pieces Pour Piano (solo)" is a charming set of miniatures that compels and beguiles.  These are revelatory, showing us a mature Onslow that has a sprawling lyricism, almost Schubertian in scope.

Claude Debussy's "Petite Suite" and Francois Poulenc's "Chansons de l'Amour et de la Guerre," the latter as arranged for piano four-hands by Linda Ang Stoodle, are beautiful works very well played here.

Piano a Deux have a remarkable fluidity and togetherness which make them a delight to hear. The Onslow works are a real find; the Poulenc and Debussy as well played as any versions I have heard. All told France Revisited  gives us a unexpected joy as we hear! Recommended.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Society for New Music, Music Here & Now

Of New Music there is no end. This is how of course it should be in a healthy music world. Today we have the chance to consider a volume of  seven new works by seven composers that many of us know little about.  It is brought to us by the Society for New Music. The two-CD set is aptly titled Music Here & Now (Innova 970). By anthologizing this series of World Premier Recordings the Society gives us a feeling for some of what is new in New Music spheres. As we sometimes see now, there are many composers out there working within tonalities. It is a given in Pomo avenues. How that works out can be tremendously varied, as the music on this anthology attests.

There is to be heard in this set jazz influences, a shade of beyond-Minimalism, Neo-Classicism, and Modern laced adventures that bring some of last century's experimentations into newly codified terrains. Rhythm in a forward moving way is another element you can hear nicely as a salient aspect of some of these works.

Performances are of a uniformly high caliber. Sufficient rehearsal time has been put into every work. The final recordings are vigorous and tender or contemplative as called for. Nothing is lacking in the performers. Smaller to larger chamber orchestra configurations are the rule.

There are internationalist elements to be heard too, without that being a central focus.

So we hear in succession Rob Deemer's "Cantos," Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon's "Jacaras," Gregory Wanamaker's "Music from a Story Within a Story," Zhou Tien's "Morning After the Deluge," Jorge Villavicencio Grossman's "Whistling Vessels," 'Doctuh' Mike Woods's "Libations," and Mark Olivieri's "Concertino: Stress Test."

Multiple hearings confirm the music as consistently well wrought and interestingly moving. Take the plunge with this one and you will doubtless  gain another perspective on what is new out there. New and excitingly so.

.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Susan Kander, Hermestanze

We carry on in life day in and day out. New people come into our center focus. Others leave. Unfamiliar composers can surprise us. Susan Kander is the latest of the latter. She is from the USA. Seemingly thriving. MSR sent me a CD of three World Premier Recordings of her music. Hermestanze (MSR 1578) is the title, named after the longest and perhaps most involved work of the three. A common thread throughout is the violin (and viola) work of Jacob Ashworth who sounds beautiful here. Joining him are pianist Lee Dionne and Jessica Petrus, soprano. All are dedicated to drawing out the rich subtleties of Kander's music, which is extremely well put-together and inspired, in a sort of Modern Neo-Classical vein.

There is depth and poise to the music. The half-hour opus "Hermestanze" (2013) for violin and piano forms the most remarkable of the three works, filled with intricate beauty. There is no direct similarity but one nonetheless recalls Stravinsky and Hindemith. There is a definite twist in form however that sets this work apart. In the tradition of earlier composers such as Schumann, the music is conceived of as a song cycle, in this case for violin and piano. 13 discrete yet interrelated song-like movements grace our ears, with a reprise of "Hermes, Messenger of the Gods" at the conclusion. This is no Neo-Romanticism in spite of the roots of the form. It is decidedly Modern and Classically balanced in the best ways. Jacob Ashworth commissioned the work and gives it definitive form. Lee Dionne makes an ideal partner for the performance. It is superb music, superbly played.

The "Solo Sonata" (2002) (with Ashworth on violin in the outer movements, viola in the middle) has the seriousness of purpose of similar works by Bartok, Reger and Hindemith. The imaginative and idiomatic use of violinistic articulations (such as double stops and harmonics) and a combination of momentum and moodiness mark Kander out as a worthy successor to the 20th century masters of such configurations.

"A Garden's Time Piece" (2011) is based on the poetry of Leslie Lasky. It has an introspective, contemplative air about it and a touchingly sparse demeanor thanks to Kanders well conceived parts. Ashworth's violin is the sole accompaniment to Jessica Petrus and her movingly sweet soprano voice. The nicely articulated performance and the considerable charm of the music win the day if you take the time to listen closely.

Susan Kander has genuine torque as a fully accomplished voice on the Modern scene. Get this one if a new wrinkle on Neo-Classicist New Music appeals. If you do not know whether that is so for you or not listen carefully and you may well be convinced that Kander is worth hearing and a welcome original exponent today.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Matteo Liberatore, Solos

For where the electric and acoustic guitar is today in New Music-Improv worlds, you can give yourself a real leg up on things by listening to the music of Matteo Liberatore, in a recent album simply entitled Solos (Innova 985). Elliot Sharp, the preset-day artist and curatorial champion of advanced guitar realms, did the remixing and mastering, and his involvement is telling, since his selfless and insightful sponsorship has been central of late in a series of guitar showcases for the very new realms on Clean Feed, I've Never Meta Guitar. (See my Gapplegate Guitar Blog for review articles. The link to that site is located in the column to the right.)

Liberatore makes very varied and imaginative use of tunings, preparations, and both conventional and unusual sounding techniques for the twelve solo interludes on this CD. Hammering on the strings with objects, bowing, cycles of picking arpeggiation, scraping, rubbing,  striking and plucking at once, glissandi, open strings along with stops, harmonics, etc.

Each composition is rather improvisatory in that it realizes a particular way to sound the guitar in a way that has immediacy. Some seem overtly, compositionally structural; others are free-flowing sound color realizations. All have in their own way a striking sonance, a special sound universe, all seem like soundtracks to some heightened state of being. Not all interludes are completely tabula rasa in terms of extended techniques. It all however holds together as a suite of musically vibrant works.

Beyond and aside from the rather ingenious ways the guitar is rethought with the various extended techniques of which Matteo makes very creative use, the music fascinates on its own. Bravo!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Miya Masaoka, Triangle of Resistance

There is a great deal more New Music coming out of different shades of stylistic distinctness now than there might have been in, say, 1972. For composer Miya Masaoka, there is a High Modern stance that nestles welcomingly in a post serialist, post-pointillist, post-bleep-bloop manner of proceeding; that is on the two works contained on the recent album Triangle of Resistance (Innova 945).

The title work is the more ambitious and memorable of the two. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of seven instrumentalists including koto (played by the composer), plus string quartet, percussion and synthesizer. It was written in remembrance and protest against the internment of Japanese-Americans in the US during WWII. "The Long Road," "The Clattering of Life," and "Survival" are the respectve titles of the three movements. The music portrays the  uprootedness, suffering and upheaval of sudden and tragic displacement as it must have felt to the victims. The music has a muted anguish and an outspoken expressiveness to it consistent with the subject matter.

The second work, "Four Moons of Pluto" is written for solo contrabass. The music involves the shifting vortex of a number of heightened resonance positions via harmonic partials and enhancements gained by detuning strings. The work seeks an analogy between the movement of planetary bodies and the movement of small number ratioed intervals.

All in all we have two provocative and relatively stunning aural explorations that most New Music appreciators will likely find interesting and worthwhile. Listen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Altius Quartet, Shostakovich, String Quartets 7, 8 & 9

Shostakovich during his eventful life wrote 15 String Quartets. They have long been celebrated as some of the handful of 20th century masterpieces of the idiom for the emotional depth of the music, the exceptional color of the strings and the serious thematic dramatics of the music from first to last. It is music to live with and grow into for an entire lifetime. The serious breadth of the music gives us something to ponder and evolve towards for an eternity. How much can any body of music offer this in a sustained way? The less of it than the more, in the end. So we should treasure what we have so exceptionally in the Shostakovich Quartets.

And as if to forward that the Altius Quartet gives us a new recording of the middle String Quartets 7, 8 & 9 (Navona 6125). There is great thrust in their hearty brio, quiet passages of sensitive probing, affirmations of the complexities and trials of human existence.

The middle quartets are a bellwether in the unfolding excellence of Shostakovich's non-compromising, severe sublimity.The middle quartets are a product of post-WWII trauma and upheaval. It was not a good time to be a Soviet composer. Shostakovich reacted to the troubled times with a challenging set of works exactly the opposite of what was expected of him by State apparachiks.We are so fortunate that he courageously prevailed under such dire circumstances. Would any of our artists today been so courageous to produce works like this under all-too-serious government opposition? Maybe not. Perhaps today such an artist would simply be locked away in an ivory tower and disposed of with a passive-aggressive indifference? That is another situation and one might ask whether that kind of "freedom" is so much better? No answer from me. History will no doubt tell the story better than we can. Too much is at stake now. And we cannot always see what developments are moving us where.

In the end it is these works we remember as enormously significant beacons of  Modern 20th-Century Music.

The Altius Quartet gives us ravishing performances of the three quartets. There is brisk energy and unsentimental, slightly reticent acuity that make these performances stand out.

Are these the best ever renditions of 7. 8 & 9? I would not go so far as to say that. Nonetheless they are vital readings and I am glad to have the CD as an addition to my Shostakovich Quartet standard recordings. A newcomer to these essential works would be well-served too. Highly recommended. The Altius Quartet is a phenomenon!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, The Firebird Suite, David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

There may be no more important work in the rise of Modernism than The Rite of Spring. There perhaps is no more significant pre-Modern precursor than The  Firebird. Both established Stravinsky as one of the titans of our times. And music was never quite the same afterwords. Here 2018 now, more than a century later, and the music sounds as beautifully important as ever. David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in the wake of their rather seminal recording of the Pathetique Symphony (see index for that review) come to us with another worthy offering, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and The Firebird Suite.(Recursive Classics 2058479).

As I sit here and write this post outside my windows are the makings of a soon-to-be-active springtime. Listening to The Rite of Spring again after so much personal and historical water under the bridge makes me wonder to myself. A work, this work brought reactions of horror and shock on the now infamous premiere performance. Audiences rioted. Hear the music today it is difficult to reimagine what the fuss was all about. That is of course much to do with how the music effected the Modern music that came after. Rhythmic drive, some dynamic dissonances, and Stravinsky's beautiful handling of the orchestra as no longer a matter of strings and extras, of course.

Does that truly explain the shock some felt on hearing the music for the first time? No. It is hard to reconstruct. By the time I was a kid Stravinsky was just there, part of what you heard. My very first classical record had on it The Firebird Suite. It seemed like it was made for a kid like me. In 6th grade we watched a slide show depicting the Firebird mytho-poetic sequence while the music played. No, they did not bring in the Rite at that point. And if they did not, it was because of the subject matter more than the musical content I would think. The Art Major Class in high school was it seemed always to be playing the Rite on the portable record player while kids created things. Nobody was shocked. Hardly.

So think of the subject matter.  "Ritual of Abduction," "Mystic Circle of the Young Girls," "Sacrificial Dance." This was a musical primitivism on the surface of things, just as Picasso introduced African Mask imagery into his art around the same time. People were reacting especially to this pre-Christian "savagery" when they rioted, maybe. Not to the music. Suppose Stravinsky had named it "The Hurricane?" That audience might all have cheered at the end.

Needless to say such a "primitive" subject matter hardly phases us today. It poses no threat. No more than Picasso's introduction of exotically "primitive" imagery into his paintings in the years just preceding the premier. It was in the wind there in Paris. It marked a momentus cultural change, of course. Yet it did not mean that Europe had truly "gone native." It was just an incorporation of non-Western, proto-archaic  aspects into the Modern assumption of what was acceptable as subject matter and content.

The music seems so familiar now that it could be profitably heard by virtually anyone of some musical understanding. Years and years of strident horror film soundtracks alone have accustomed us to expanded possibilities.

Now the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony and David Bernard's reading of Rite and Firebird reflects our acceptance and familiarity with these icons. There is sensuality, there is great power, there is a dynamic smoothness, a sure handedness of execution and easy comprehensions of the full breadth of the scores. The chamber sized orchestra does not overtax, the strings are equals with the winds and brass, all seems right and measured yet forcefully lyric.The percussion is not shy and we get the full weight of the music in a nicely balanced neither romanticized or self-consciously "savage" way.

The versions are close to ideal. The performance is near perfect for the newcomer to "Modern" music. Old hands may well find these versions worthwhile to add to their collection. I myself am glad to have them.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Janson, Mikalsen, Vaage, Ratkje, Variations Over Variations, Norwegian Radio Orchestra

So much to hear out there. And then, something sneaks up on you. Boom! Variations Over Variations (Aurora ACD 5096) was a kind of boom for me. I did not expect it. I was glad to hear it. The Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya give us well shaped performances of four Norwegian works previously unknown to me yet adventuresome in the New High Modern zone.

Three of the works were written in 2014, one in 2017. The liner notes point out that the composers straddle different generations and traditions. In common is that all works were commissioned or co-commissioned by the orchestra. What counts is that all works have a poignancy and thoroughly immerse the listener in orchestral color and imaginative poetics.

We get the chance to familiarize ourselves with Alfred Janson's "Variations Over Variations Over a Norwegian Folk Tune," Jan Erik Mikalsen's "Songr for Orchestra," Knut Vaage's "Mylder," and Maja S.K. Ratkje's "Paragraf 112."

Through the many twists and turns that I make no attempt to describe here one constant weaves its way through it all--the Modern project whether tonal or expanded, an acute sense of line and timbre, an epic attention to involved orchestral eloquence. Every one of these works adds something good to what already has been.

It should be a joy to you if you  treasure the new consonance, the new orchestral possibilities. There is neither an acute striving after the very borders of the possible nor a conscious attempt to hold back the sluice gates of invention. A hugely satisfying sleeper is what we have here. Take a chance and listen closely! Very recommended.



Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ann Millikan, Millikan Symphony, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The excellent Boston Modern Music Project under Gil Rose returns for the music of a New American Composer of note, namely Ann Millikan and her full-length Millikan Symphony (Innova 981). Now I must say that dealing with a plethora of New Music most every day has its challenges, for me especially in the constant interplay of same and different. Commonly there will be stylistic traits in New Music that tend to cluster in groups and can be identified. In the end, though, what matters about a composer or a work is how those clusters reverberate in the individual sense, or on the other hand what is not to be found if it does not seem to be there, how sometimes you do not hear such a reverberation much.

In the case of Ann Millikan and her Millikan Symphony, what she does with some Modern traits is much more important than the newness or oldness of the traits themselves. Listening to Millikan Symphony it is supremely important to hear the work closely, more than once. Otherwise  the traits themselves will be the main apprehension and the special putting together might totally pass you by. A reasoned, considered judgement on New Music is a complex give and take of content and structure.

So I would venture to say that the structuring of the content of Millikan Symphony is the critical aspect that sets it apart. Sure if you look at each piece as a piece you might identify Copland pastoral tenderness, Stravinskian Neo-Classical heroic regality, maybe some of the orchestral dynamics of some of the most celebrated big orchestrators (I won't say Richard Strauss here because it is not quite that), maybe the Harrisonian delicious articulation of flute and strings, the moody mystery of Post-Tone Poetry, and more.

Yet thanks to the very gradated excellence of the BMOP performance and what the score calls for, there is a kind of inner organicism of spirit and a narrative thrust that is a story in itself.

This is a work of hommage, of Ann to her brother Robert, dead at the age of 55 in 2012, a brilliant epidemiologist, a pioneer on the incidence of breast cancer,  a dedicated veterinarian, a lover of nature and a profoundly musical soul. The five movements of the work unravel and reveal a special aspect of Robert the human. There is the "Science" movement, one for "Animals," "Rowing," and "Violin." Polyrhythmic and tonally expanded, the music is at once beholden to the legacy of High Modernism and also too to the grand narrative style of the most revered orchestral masters. The music comes out of a collaborative venture planned over the years between Robert and Ann. Some of the music was dictated by Ann to Robert; the principal"Violin" movement  theme has Robert's compositional hand upon it. Milliken Symphony is the triumphant result of the two in their musical closeness, yet also stunningly a backward view of Robert's many tiered life via the hindsight of its passing.

It is hard to imagine a more moving tribute. Even though we may know next to nothing about Robert's life, something very strong of its essence comes through throughout. 

After very many listens I come away from the work feeling like I have heard something of real significance. All those superficial traits at the first listen have become enigmatically original along with the flow and pacing and structure. It is not a work you put on first time and give a loud "wow!" to in response. The wow effect builds. Then, you know. Or I knew, anyway. Wow.

You would do well to venture upon this music and its very satisfying performance by BMOP. It is subtle in the beginning of your interaction, then the it becomes more and more clearly, identifiably special. I do recommend you spend some serious time with this. Ann Millikan is a living treasure!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Third Coast Percussion, Paddle to the Sea

We approach a season, especially where I am, that becomes ever more focused on water, particularly sea water. Enter the Third Coast Percussion's Paddle to the Sea (Cedille CDR 90000 175). As the title suggests, the music performed on this program has been put together in this form to describe  musically-virtually a journey out to sea on a small craft. The music follows on the heels of their Grammy Winning album of the music of Steve Reich.

The music is perfectly dazzling much of the time, like early light upon the waves of the sea. Lots of marimbas, vibes, metallophones, and some mbiras evoke a post-African, post-Indonesian Modernist and post-Modernist sprawl of time and tone. Head to the sand, to the waves, to the smell of coconut oil sun lotion, to the teaming marine life that boat skims over gracefully on a spring morning. That is the music to me on the eve of the end of winter.

Third Coast Percussion here triumphs where perhaps others would do so the lesser. There is a musical opening onto the water from the first, Third Coast's striking arrangement of Philip Glass's "Madeira River." It sets the scene for the "Paddle to the Sea" sequence that cycles like a space-age Javanese Gamelan. It was originally created to act as the score for the film of the same name. It has depth and dramatic breadth too.

Then there is m-bouyant mbira via Musekiwa Chingodza's vocal-mbira arrangement of the traditional Shona African "Chigwaya." It is ravishing music. From there we hear arrangements of three more movements from Philip Glass's Aguas da Amazonia and six movements of Jacob Druckman's Reflections on the Nature of Water. 

I've listened to this album a bunch of times by now. My love of it grows without fail each time I hear it. Anyone who appreciates melodic percussion and the Post-Minimal possibilities that can be heard today must simply look this one up! Anyone looking for "trends" of New Music lately will find this most absorbing as well. It is sublime!


Friday, March 2, 2018

John A. Carollo, The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino

In the realm of emergent composers in the US, one of my favorites, happily, is John A. Carollo. There is a brand new one coming out soon and I will no doubt cover it. Today, though, I must catch up with a very nice one that came out last year. The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino (Navona 6109 CD or 2-LPs) I've been listening to and liking for several months now. It is a compilation of orchestral works in World Premier Recordings. Per Vronsky conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra throughout. The performances are respectable and give us a clearly articulated opening onto the works. There no doubt will be other performances to follow in time. For now we get to hear the music as Maestro Carollo intended it.

There is a great deal of excellent music to savor in this program. "The Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief" and "Move Towards the Light (Your Destiny Awaits You)" are the first and last compositions in the sequence, bookends that have some of the very ravishing Carollo largos, which are so American in thrust, with some echo and extension of the Ives mystery and perhaps even some echoes of Ornette Coleman's justly celebrated "The Skies of America." That is not to say that there is imitation involved, just a kind of Zeitgeist of belonging. These works perhaps epitomize a kind of cosmos of longing for something beyond the materiality of the American Dream.

More or less sandwiched in between are a number of rather wonderfully contrasting works of a very different sort."The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino," "Let Freedom Ring," "Do You Have an E.R. for Music?" and "Symphony No. 2 (The Circle of Fire)" give notice (again?) that John A. Carollo is a serious player in the New American Music scene today. The works have great forward rhythmic momentum without following a "Rites" model or for that matter any other in any obvious way. The music is consequential and enlivening, It exists in its own singular category as Carollo music. That is saying a great deal.

A detailed description of the music is not really necessary for these purposes. Suffice to say that there is a dynamic energy to the middle works and a ravishing mystery to the end works. Together we get a detailed earful of the full spectrum of Carollean musico-logic and poeticism.

I recommend this music to you most strongly. It is original and grows exponentially inside you the more you listen. Grab this if you want to open yourself to emergent American music today.


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Ken Walicki, Cyberistan, Electro-Acoustic Music

Every day I try and turn words into music on these pages. Modern music does not become words, exactly. It has a parallel and the words point more than emulate. So there are words this morning for a new wrinkle on New Music, a Modern take on Electro-Acoustics, namely Ken Walicki and his CD Cyberistan (Ravello RR7974).

Five works grace the program. Each concentrates on an acoustic instrument or set of instruments. Each centers the instrumental sound in a carpet of electro-acoustic sounds directly related to the instrumental situation or in complement to it.

So we hear Tom Peters' double bass as a foundational launching pad on "Light," Virginia Costa Figueiredo's clarinet and Fureya Unal's piano on "Black Water," Rachel Mellis's flute on "Sabah," Fureya Unal's piano on "Cyberistan," and the Eclipse Quartet on "nada Brahma."

The title Cyberistan is telling. Walicki makes a kind of transformed World Music with elements of Jazz, New Music and an acute sense of purposefulness. There may be no tighter a bond of live instruments and electro-acoustics than what we hear here. All exists seemingly by design and direction more so than chance. That saying it is nonetheless often spontaneous sounding

Walecki is another exemplar of the Modern as tonal, spacious and vaguely non-Western. There is lift, expressive drift, parts working together as an organic whole. Yet one does not want to leave the "another" hanging. Because there is nothing merely sequential, no simple "this follows the before" patness.

The send-off of "nada Brahma" leaves us with a certainty that such sounds are rare and affirming. What is the Modern today? This is one excellent answer. Hear it.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Grant Cutler, Self Portrait

Grant Cutler comes our way with Self Portrait (Innova 961), an eight-part ambient soundscape for a chamber ensemble of synth, organ, piano, two cellos, violin, saxophone and vocalist. The production by Grant Cutler and Chris Campbell is spacious and dreamy, so much so that you have to listen for a while to fully grasp the instrumental combinations. This is not electro-acoustic music per se yet the music has an enhanced feel that puts it into soundscape territory. Grant Cutler and Chris Campbell made another memorable soundscapery a while back with their Schooldays Over, which I liked quite a bit and posted about on these pages when it was first released. Type their names in the search box above to see that review.

Self Portrait brings to us a sustained atmosphere of floating aetherial tonality. The mood is both introspective and elated. It reminds me slightly of Terry Riley's mid-later work, but not the Minimalist strain so much as some of his movie music. Floating choral-color sound blocks drift by like gossamer clouds on a moderately brisk breeze.

This is music that can best be heard rather than described. And so I post this as a place marker, to recommend that you hear the sounds and sequences so nicely mapped out and executed by Grant Cutler and colleagues.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Steve Rouse, Morphic Resonance, Chamber Music


The music of Steve Rouse has a kind of natural fluency born of a convincing inventiveness. We can hear this to excellent advantage on his recent album Morphic Resonance, Chamber Music (Ravello 7973).

Steve Rouse has a voice, a presence, an original take on the Modern Contemporary project. Five compositions grace this volume. Each one reveals special aspects of the Rouse approach. Each is sure of its goals and realizes them with distinction.

"Sonata for Violin and Piano" has a Neo-Classical Stravinsky-esque flavor. There is a joyous rhythmic drive and an infectious melodic-harmonic fingerprint of Rouse-ness nicely to be heard throughout.

"Form Fades" for six chamber instrumentalists has motor propulsion and repetition outside of a typically orthodox minimalist range--the repetitive elements occur more in developmental blocks than post-African line movement. It is not-so-much "through" rhythmically as it is a matter of cubistically conjoined sectional blocks that whirl for a certain time, then give way to a new sonic event. I would say that this favorably reminds me of Luc Ferrari's "Interrupteur" and "Tautologos 3." Yet I say that not because it sounds like either. Rather there are surface plane divisions like a cracked earth mantle. The divisions have related yet distinctive differences to them, so that a traversal is not a repetition overall so much as movement along various fault lines. That is, if that makes any sense. Like the Ferrari works I have loved for so long, you do not feel a suspension of time. You feel strongly a movement forward. It is beautiful, original music!

"Nevolution" brings together a primal ahead-directed piano part with expressive scaling-searching trumpet (actually corno da caccia) often with a natural resonance. It is a memorable and idiosyncratic work.

"Ten Little Things" pits clarinet with percussion for some very rousing and expressive miniatures. The variable coloration of a battery of percussion instruments feeds the clarinet part with contrasts. A series of open explorations results, ear opening and ever-shifting in its trajectories.

"King Tango" is the short yet eventful closer. Flute and double bass send us off in style in a nicely jagged, futuristic manner. There is much to savor in this compressed moment of farewell.

So we have an end to a worthy and original program. Steve Rouse has it, a voice for our times. Any fan of New Music will no doubt find this as essential as I did. Get it!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Daron Hagen, 21st Century Song Cycles, Lyric Fest

Once again into the fray of this century! Today, a living American composer, one Daron Hagen (b. 1961). We get five 21st Century Song Cycles (Naxos 8.559714). They are World Premier Recordings. Performances are by Lyric Fest, a Philadelphia-based  multi-vocalist-pianist gathering dedicated to the Art Song in performance. It consists  of sopranos Justine Aronso, Kelly Ann Bixby, Gilda Lyons, mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, tenor Joseph Gaines, baritone Daniel Teadt and Laura Ward at the piano.

Those who know Daron Hagen's music well will forgive my ignorance. The Naxos back jewel-case blurb makes note of his operas, symphonies and concertos, and most importantly his more than 350 published art songs.  The blurb goes on to assert that Hagen is continuing the art tradition of American icons Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem!

If all that is so, I surmised on reading the blurb before I put the CD on, then this should be much to my liking! Does this music live up to the introduction? Read on.

For art song vocals I have in my head a couple of templates: Schubert, Elly Ameling and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. All that may indeed raise the bar to impossible heights, I admit. And there are other paths, more modern of course, and other vocal colors to apprehend and appreciate. How does this CD measure up?

Quite obviously it is too much to ask an Art Song composer to rise to Schubert's heavenly sky soaring. So also Ameling and Fischer-Dieskau were in many ways definitive performers of such fare. Face it, these yardsticks of measure are supposing a moment in Art Song perfection we should not expect to be equalled let along exceeded any time soon. Then of course a composer today must go her or his own way, and vocalists can give us exceptional performances in a contemporary realm without necessarily touching that set of particulars.

What, then of these five Song Cycles and their performances? Do they further the ambitious paths set beyond Schubert by Barber, Bernstein and Rorem? I will not say no. There is much very good music to hear on this program. And what of the performances? I will say straight off that pianist Laura Ward leaves nothing to be desired given the parameters of the works.

The seven song "Phantoms of Myself" (2000) with soprano Gilda Lyons is in performance and as Art Song stunning. The cycle covers a 24-hour day via the selected poem-texts of Susan Griffin, feminist and poetic strength. The cycle was initially commissioned for first performance by Ashley Putnam. Ms. Lyons brings her own magic to the songs.

Then there are the substantial and worthwhile presentations of first recordings of four other cycles: "After Words" (2013), "Songs of Experience" (2007), "Four Irish Folk Songs" (2009), "Four Dickenson Songs" (2014). All have a poetic lyricism, a tonal Post-Romantic aura, an expressive foundational communicative quality and a good deal of musical subtlety.

Is Hagen carrying the mantle of American Art Song development today? Undoubtedly, yes. Anyone with an interest in such things should find this collection compelling and very worthwhile. Recommended.




Friday, February 23, 2018

Jason Tad Howard, Daniel Perttu, Small Stones, Modern Piano Music, Nancy Zipay Desalvo

What do we mean right now when we say in terms of music "The Modern?" I surely must think I know. After all this blog is called Gapplegate Classical-Modern Review, right? I generally believe how a term is used in the active contemporary realm is the most instructive. So I do not especially care to assert on some abstract, peopleless level what the "Modern" is for all eternity. By nature there is a fleeting quality to it. Some people concentrate on "correct" usage, assuming that there is a valid, permanent meaning ascribed  to a word, perhaps in extremis stemming back in Biblical terms to what Adam purported to name everything in his world. I balk at such things. What at the moment we mean by "Modern" is what matters to me. And since last century it does mean a body of somethings distinct from other things.

There is the Modern Period, perhaps in musical terms everything composed from perhaps 1910 or so through to today. Then there is the "High Modern," what was most advanced and marked as "Modern" in music made between maybe 1946 to 1980? And now there is simply everything we might experience in the Contemporary New Music or mainstream Classical spheres, being known by that term simply because it has been composed in our present day. This is not an exhaustive roundup since there still is all the music composed from say 1910 on, the particulars of what that can be. My blog certainly tries to answer the question with every posting. And there is no one answer.

For the moment the present-day Modern category concerns me. That is so because today's posting covers Small Stones, Modern Piano Music (Navona 6139). It is a 32 minute EP that presents two ambitious Sonatas for piano, one by Jason Tad Howard, another by Daniel Perttu. The music is well-performed by Nancy Zipay Desalvo.

As the self-defining "Modern Piano Music" subtitle makes clear, this is "Modern" in name as well as time period. So what then is modern about it? Jason Tad Howard gives us his "Piano Sonata No. 2, Nine Short Shorts for Piano." Daniel Perttu in turn presents to us his "Sonata for Piano." Nancy Zipay Desalvo brings to both works a fine, dramatically interpretive sensibility that in no small part accounts for the success of the program.

So how, then is this Modern Music? The answer is not facile or so plainly obvious as it might be for other works we could  hear under this rubric. Both works are firmly tonal, which should surprise nobody. Both have a sort of "Neo-Expressionist" vitality to them. They sometimes remind one of those transitional pianistic voices that graced the Early Modern period, Sorabji, Ornstein, Scriabin, Ives in some passages, Alkan, Prokofiev, and so forth. The music coming as it does now warrants some kind of "Neo-" prefix. But too the music is in no way especially identical to the earlier Expressionist pianistic proponents. And that is so logically to the extent that the individual qualities of each composer reaches out to our listening ears.

The most obvious element when you first listen is to be had in Howard's Sonata. There are eight brief movements and one slightly longer end statement. The point becomes not some unified development or even variational span to my ears. Rather, each snippet builds atop what has come before, in the end forming a collection of phrasal-melodic-harmonic possibilities that relate one to another by virtue of metonymy and lengthening more so than some simple organic wholeness.

Perttu's own Sonata is a dash forward into cascades and waves of momentus sound. The individual element is no doubt the manner in which Perttu builds the expressions in seamless and dramatic ways.

This is a volume one might not expect in that the music does not easily fit into any obvious movement in Post-Modern Modernism. If you simply forget all of that the music speaks eloquently and memorably. Ms. Desalvo brings every nuance to life and convinces us that the music is very worthwhile. Small Stones will find sympathetic vibrations no doubt in anyone who responds readily to pianism of a high order. It is not music to jar you into another world of sound. It is music that has much continuity with traditional pianism from Chopin on. Yet there is something singular and winning about each Sonata. Give this one a try and see what you think. I myself am happy to hear and rehear the music.