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Monday, May 21, 2018

Michael Hersch, Images from A Closed Ward, FLUX Quartet

Living composer Michael Hersch (b. 1971) is a leader among High Modernists composing right now. I say that based on recordings of his music, namely Last Autumn  (see review from April 8, 2015), A Breath Upwards (see April 4, 2018) the Blair Quartet recording of Images from A Closed Ward (see March 5, 2014) and The Sudden Pianist (see June 4, 2013).

Hersch does not create music that sounds like it comes out of a laboratory or a math department at a prominent university (though I should be quick to point out that I like either sorts of things regardless). Instead there is a high level of drama and expressivity to the works I have heard, palettes of consonant and dissonant tonality working in tandem depending on the needs of the work, and at times an underlying extra-musical thematics that turns the music into a kind of narrative or meta-narrative that is more than just notes situated in space.

This latter is very relevant to the CD on the docket for this Monday. It is a new recording of Hersch's moving string quartet, Images from A Closed Ward (New Focus Recordings FCR 199). The first recording as I mention above featured the Blair Quartet. Ths time out we have the FLUX Quartet doing the honors.

As Aaron Grad puts it in the liner notes, Hersch often enough addresses the difficult theme of "loss and psychological instability." From A Closed Ward treats this condition as a central concern, at the same time as it provides a musical analogy to the visual content. It all began when Hersch encountered American visual artist Michael Mazur when they both happened to be in Rome--that is to say that Hersch was in Rome on a Rome Prize Fellowship. At the same time Mazur had a number of etchings on display at the American Academy. This was all about illustrations provided by Mazur for a new translation of Dante's Inferno.

Hersch saw the show and was impressed by it. He recognized in Mazur the visual equivalent to where Hersch was going musically.  At some point they met and hit it off. Mazur's initial signature pieces came out in the '60s, two sets of etchings and lithographs entitled Closed Ward and Locked Ward. The images were harrowingly dark renditions of a near hopeless sadness, an ugliness that served to isolate each from others. These works became central to the string quartet Hersch began in 2009.

And of course that quartet is what we hear so dramatically rendered in the present recording. What perhaps is most striking musically is a deliberate blocking out of one after another of short string groupings of sound, mostly simultaneously sounded yet with an unpredictability in both the voicings and the uttered periodicity. The voicings themselves are sometimes spread out in pitch so that the instability of the voicings correspond in many ways to the etching contents. There can be sharp dissonances and less dissonant voicings in contrast, the latter of which seem to want to more forward into more dissonance, or my ear hears it that way--as opposed to the old classical way of letting a dissonance sound as a movement towards a consonance.

So in the sympathy Hersch feels towards the Mazur patients, who seem to suffer mostly from their very isolation, we get a musical analogy or analogue of a series of soundings all interrelated but in a psychoacoustic sense never exactly interconnected, or in other words deliberately made  to conjoin yet existing in a ghastly solitude. I accidentally when looking for Hersh's birthdate online brushed up against a Times review that remarked on Hersch's dark pallet but also the moments of ecstasy. Honestly I did not hear that so much as unrelieved and rather hopeless sadness, sometimes quiet, sometimes like a cry of anguish. There seems to me no real relief in sight in the actual tone-movement forward. Still, the aesthetic brilliance of the way the tone blocks bump up against one another yet remain alone, that makes the listener zero down on the sheer sensual tone utterance quality. It is the manner of expression that fascinates and heartens the listener, that transcends the awe-ful presence of the subject matter, the patients and their struggles. From pain comes a pleasure in the referents, taken aside from the signifieds!

I hear this new version by FLUX. I love it. I find it different enough that I am glad to have it along with the Blair version. This may be the definitive performance though. If you for the moment only have resources to explore one, I recommend this one. The work is a milestone in quartet literature! Bravo!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Bruno Bettinelli, Chamber Music, Trio, Improvvisazione, Due movimenti

Every month as a reviewer brings me a spate of composers I have yet to discover. Some from right this moment, others recently gone, others of course from some earlier period. Today we have yet another, one Bruno Bettinelli (1913-2004).

Bettinelli was a successor to the Italian 20th century lineage of composers that include Respighi and Casella, somewhat less so the Serialist-and-beyond camp of Dallapiccola, Maderna, Berio and Nono. Yet there is a structural concern to be heard in his works and an abstractive flair that makes him a full Modernist at heart. At least that is what I hear and appreciate on a new recording simply entitled Chamber Music, with mention in the subtitle of three of the important works to be heard in the program, Trio, Improvvisazione, Due movimenti (Naxos 8.573836).

Performances are first-rate. The music? Compositions cover a pretty vast period of time from 1968 to 1991. None of the works are trifles, all are uncompromising small chamber configurations ranging from two solo guitars ("Divertimento" 1982), flute and guitar ("Musica a due" 1983), voice and guitar ("Due liriche" 1977), violin and piano ("Improvvisazione" 1968, "Due movimente" 1977), to violin, cello and piano ("Trio" 1991).

What is perhaps most remarkable about these pieces is their refusal to settle down into an easily characterizable niche, and in a related way, their refusal to supply a crowd-pleasing literary or thematic "hook." The Modernism lingers on the edges of what was in demand at the time. There are no obviously Serial strands of bloop and bleep in this music, but then there is enough of an abstract expressive autonomy to perhaps put off those committed to a past-leaning neo-Classicism or neo-Romanticism. This is chamber music that is ultra-serious about a commitment to hermetic purism. Like late Beethoven Quartets it does not try to speak plainly as much as it drives deeply into a sort of advanced expression that primarily is intended for the "real" cognoscenti.

So every work is a kind of highly worked gem that does not easily yield its riches but demands special attention. Slowly, as you listen repeatedly, the music emerges, even reluctantly. Yet if you spend the time with this music, you begin to reap the benefits. This is not stylistically astounding Modernism nor is it rear-garde hearkening back. It is everywhere. It is nowhere. It nearly demands the sort of intimacy that someone who learns to perform this music would have. Not quite all, but a reflective practical immersion. You need that. In today's world, does any of us have that much to give a composer who is already past and not yet certified as a member of the Holy Pantheon? That is your call. I decided to keep listening and by now I understand that this has substance and uncompromising originality.

So once again, here is something that does not play itself. YOU must be an active participant to the music in order for it to do its work. If you do that you will enter a world that you might not have available to you with any other composer. That is saying something, isn't it?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Lorenzo Palomo, Sinfonia Cordoba, Fulgores, Castile and Leon Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez Cobos

The Contemporary living Spanish Composer Lorenzo Palomo (b. 1938) is previously unfamiliar to me. All that has changed since I have been listening to his CD recording of Sinfonia Cordoba and Fulgores (Naxos 8.573326). 

These two symphonic examples from 2015 and 2011, respectively, give us a splendid view onto Palomo's mature style. The liners make mention of Palomo as the stylistic successor to Joaquin Turina--especially in terms of the "rhapsodic freedom" that they share. In a broader sense Palomo represents all Spanish folk-tinged classical forebears since DeFalla and adds something of his own original musical personality to it.

"Sinfonia Cordoba" is a sort of musical travelogue, a portrait of an old city in three movements. "Stroll to the mosque-cathedral" begins with mystery and segues to a beautiful moment for tenor Pablo Garcia Lopez and orchestra. "Nocturne on the river bank" and "Courtyards in the month of May" continue the rhapsodic Spanish-tonality-drenched whirly-gig of impressions. And somehow one can feel that late springtime diffuses something in this music.

"Fulgores" is a dancing sort of folkish atmosphere that features to good advantage Rafael Aguirre on guitar and Ana Maria Valderrama on violin.

It all is a good example of well-wrought, well-orchestrated Spanishiana if you will pardon the awkward coinage. Those who do not embrace the rich legacy of Spanish sounds may not find this especially interesting. Yet if that is the case I suppose such a person would have no interest in following the Spanish classical heritage at all, so that would be rather obvious.

I find this music did not reach out to me on the first number of listens. Then, pretty late in the game I started to respond to its rather profound indifference to generating applause, its definite "this is the music as it needs to be" approach. In the end I like it and I hear a sort of poetic, Spanish Impressionist strain that is about the echo of substance and light more than an immediate presence. So in the end I recommend it. But you will need to spend some time with this music before it speaks to you, if you are anything like me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Copland, Getty, Heggie, Tilson Thomas, Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson, A Certain Slant of Light, Lisa Delan, Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille, Lawrence Foster

To gather together multiple Contemporary Modern song cycles for soprano and orchestra based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson seemed like a good idea when I heard of it, and so I requested a copy. I have now spent some time absorbing it and shall report on this morning to you. A certain slant of light: Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson (Pentatone PTC 5186 654) is the full title. Soprano Lisa Deland holds forth dramatically with the Orchestra Philharmonique de Marseille under Lawrence Foster sounding nicely detailed and poised in a program of cycles by Aaron Copland, Jake Heggie, Gordon Getty, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

The stage is set historically and stylistically by Copland's celebrated cycle "Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson" (1948/1950). It is music familiar to many, myself included, and it functions in some ways as a template for an evocatively descriptive and Expressionistic-Modern-quasi-Impressionistic pallet of colors to heighten the soprano's textual through-composed presence throughout.

The sort of descriptive-Modern-Leider approach is continued and extended in the song cycles that follow. Jake Heggie's "Newer Every Day" (2014), Gordon Getty's "Four Dickinson Songs" (2008) and Michael Tilson Thomas's "Poems of Emily Dickinson, selections" (2001) all offer some genuinely moving music and a sort of continuous Dickinsonion dramatic theatre of text and tone. Of all these Modern extensions on Dickinsonia the Tillson Thomas stands out as being especially interesting and original, yet in the end all of this music is worthwhile.

Delan and the Orchestre Philharmonic de Marseille are in top form. They exemplify how to approach this music, not so much as an extension of operatic gestures as a thoroughly liederian approach, dramatic yet introspectively expressive.

And so I do not hesitate to recommend this to you, for the performances, for the Copland and the Tilson Thomas especially but for the Heggie and Getty as well.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Amit Peled, To Brahms, With Love, From the Cello of Pablo Casals, Brahms Cello Sonatas 1 & 2, Noreen Polera


In the classical world album ideas can either make sense or become a sort of marketing gimmick. Cellist Amit Peled's new album belongs happily to the first category. Its subtitle tells half the story, From the Cello of Pablo Casals, since for this recording Amit is playing the great Casals' 1733 Goffriller cello. The principal title of the album tells us the rest: To Brahms with Love (CAP Records 018-1). In fact this is a fine recording of Brahms Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 by cellist Peled and pianist Noreen Polera.

As far as the cello goes, it sounds as wondrously full and deep as it did with Casals. Amit Peled soars high and far throughout, yet his emotional connection with the Brahms is a little bit more balanced and so sounds like a contemporary of ours rather than a product of an earlier generation. His playing is nuanced and exemplary. Noreen Polera on piano is a perfect partner in this endeavor, with classical balance and a lively repartee with Amit.

There have of course been some beautiful recordings of the Brahms sonatas. This one may not quite equal some of the more famous ones for extroverted virtuoso extravagance, yet because of that it gives us Brahms's compositional intentions all the more clearly, with attention and care for the totality.

The Second Sonata has long captivated me with its Apollonion exuberance and lengthy melodic intertwining of inspired thematics. The appearance of both sonatas in the last half of the 19th Century furthered the scope of Beethoven's work on the instrumentation, reaching further heights of long-form expression with Brahms' definitive entry into the fray. The two composer's Cello Sonatas set the bar high for dramatic and structural possibilities and influenced all that came in their wake. In both cases music was always the master. Difficulty and virtuosity were ever tied to the needs of a musical sounding of intelligence and a wrought complexity that ever seemed lucid and compellingly discursive. If there is never a doubt that the cello has the primary voice, the piano is never relegated to a mere accompaniment but instead flourishes on completely musical terms, as an independent weaver of corresponding lines and a principal realizer of the harmonic implications of the overall whole.

What strikes me especially at this point in my experience of the music is the remarkable organic pull to a seamless developmental whole, especially in the Second Sonata. Rarely do you encounter the sort of sequential busy work that marks less inspired developmental sections. It all seems a continuous saying, rather than a butchering of things into rigid sections. One follows the other in remarkable fluency and continuously significant phrasings, so that theme and development overlap into one long endless melody line. This is Brahms at his best.

And so we have two major chamber classics newly performed with a modern sensibility. There is a marked audio clarity to these recorded performances and an impressively rich cello sound. Peled and Polera give us performances that stand to become future benchmarks on what constitutes the present-day standard for Romantic Chamber Classics. Bravo!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Leopold Kozeluch, Complete Keyboard Sonatas 12, Kemp English


As the liner notes to the current volume state, Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818) was a contemporary of Mozart and during his days in Vienna was thought by many to be a better composer! And yet only now with a valiant undertaking of the World Premier Recordings of his Complete Keyboard Sonatas (This being the 12th and final volume) (Grand Piano GP736), Kemp English introduces these some 50 works to our world.

Why has it taken so long? Kozeluch was born outside of Prague in 1747 and moved to Vienna by 1780. By then the pianoforte had all but replaced the harpsichord as the fulcrum point of a musical home and Kozeluch's sonatas gave the amateur a lot of possible choices. The music in this volume includes an early example, perhaps a little CPE Bach-like, and a later, more-or-less pre-Beethovenian proto-Romantic sonata. I am happy to say that Sonatas 47-50 are fascinating glimpses into a vital creative mind.

Kemp English performs all on beautiful period instruments. He sounds inspired and I cannot fault his performances in the least. The complete set was made possible in many ways by Christopher Hogwood's welcome editing of a complete Barenreiter Edition that has been published recently.

The liners give us valuable historical background, including an assertion that his centrality for keyboard sonatas and his personal vision in fact enabled him to effect a major revolution in the music circles of the time.  Consider this quote from a 1796 Schonfeld  publication:  "The vogue of the pianoforte is due to [Kozeluch]. The monotony and muddled sound of the harpsichord could not accommodate the clarity, the delicacy, the light and shade he demanded in music; he therefore took no students who did not want to understand the fortepiano as well, and it seems that he has no small share in the reformation of taste in keyboard music."

That is a rather bold assertion to us perhaps, since we have basically known next to nothing of the piano music in our lifetime. However a close listen to this 12th volume bears out the assertion, or at least does nothing to contradict it. Kozeluch surely has a real talent and a feeling for the piano that rivals the best of his contemporaries.

If we do not hear the emotional strength and depth of Beethoven or the sublimity of Mozart or the melodically soaring qualities of Schubert, there is something else to be appreciated that makes a journey into this volume worthwhile. There is a kind of crisp logic, an inevitability to the unfolding sequences.

Anyone who loves the Classical-Early Romantic period of the Viennese flourishing will retrieve an important lost piece of the scene then with this Kozeluch set. Volume 12 satisfies on its own, but if you are a completest you may want to explore the rest as well. Brilliant addition! Definitely recommended.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Paul Reale, Chopin's Ghosts, Kim Cook, Christopher Guzman

Contemporary American composer Paul Reale has not gotten a lot of attention on this blog. The lack is remedied today with a volume of chamber music for cello and piano, Chopin's Ghosts (Naxos 8.559820). Performances are in the very capable hands of Kim Cook, cello, and Christopher Guzman, piano. They are melifluent and balanced in expression, neither facile nor counter-phlegmatic, rather occupying a kind of ideal middle ground that allows this music's Modernist core to mingle freely and adeptly with the music's Neo-Classical balance and Neo-Romantic expression.

The music on this program is quite recent (or recently revised), all but one (Wexford Carol, 2004) hailing from our current decade. The solo cello "Seance" (1973-74, rev. 2017) spells the program nicely as a short and worthy break from the cello-piano configuration, the latter of which is otherwise predominant.

And for that there is much to appreciate. There is substantial invention and complexity so that lovers of the cello-piano magic of the past can live the experience again with enough change that there is no question of repetition. It takes some close listens, many more than one, and then the music truly beings to speak.

"Durch die Jahreszeiten II" (2013) sets the stage for what is to come with finely wrought folk in radical transformation. The centerpiece works "Chopin's Ghost (Cello Sonata No. 2)" (2017) and "Cello Sonata No. 1" (1983, rev. 2017) make use of "found material" to give us a Modern drama of old in flux and transport. So the first makes use of the old "What Can You Do with a Drunken Sailor" while No. 2 alludes in transformed obliqueness to the music of Chopin. It is the complex node of reworking that affords us substantial fare, a kind of set of memory objects that show by the passage of time how there can never be a continuous sameness if there is to be an ongoing contemporary music world.

Those who rise to new cello-piano repertoire played well I warrant will find this absorbing and rewarding. And those who appreciate well-thought-out, Modern "Neo-" will much appreciate it as well, I would think.