Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Roussel, Piano Music 1, Sonatine, The Sandman, Trois Pieces, Jean-Pierre Armengaud

Sometimes the world appears as a field of vision, a gestalt whole, and looking at it throughout your life there are details that only emerge gradually from the background. I am having that sort of breakthrough with the composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937) who before now I tended to lump together with the French Impressionists, meaning that I paid too little attention to what makes Roussel a voice in very much his own right.

That changed a few weeks ago when I put on the first of a projected (complete?) series of volumes devoted to his solo piano music. Piano Music 1 (Naxos 8.573093) gives us Jean-Pierre Armengaud's renditions of a good selection of Roussel works spanning the period 1904 to 1933, much of his career.

What is surprising is that other than "Le Marchand de sable qui passe - musique de scene, Op 13" (1908) which enjoys its first recording in the piano version, there is less of an obvious Debussian-Impressionist flavor to this music than I would have expected. Or rather it would be more accurate to say that Roussel is on his own turf from the 1912 "Sonatine" on. There are proto-modernist moments, an idiomatic pianism, a distinctive melodic-harmonic fluorescence, a sensuous quality to his music that cannot be reduced to "what was in the air" at the time.

The "Trois Pieces, Op. 49" (1933) is an excellent example. There is rhythmic vitality, a quirky melodic asymmetry, a modern modulatory sort of feel.

There are no clinker pieces on this disk. Everything is very well imagined and executed, even the earlier works. Jean-Pierre Armengaud has the drive and pianistic poeticism to make these performances sound in a way Roussel no doubt would have approved. The man who taught Satie and Varese had his own way. You can hear that quite nicely on this Volume One. Bring on the second!

Definitely recommended.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Kara Karayev, The Seven Beauties, The Path of Thunder (Ballet Suites), Royal Philharmonic, Dmitry Yablonsky

The end of the Soviet Union and the reorganization of Russia and its formerly or continuing Federated States has meant that the "West" has seen a dramatic blossoming of Russian music and musicians on our turf, perhaps as never before. It makes sense. It's easier to work outside of Russia than it was I can assume and the music can travel with less bureaucratic obstacles on either side.

So today we have a Russian-Azerbaijanian conductor (Dmitry Yablonsky) conducting the English powerhouse, the Royal Philharmonic in a program of two ballet suites by the Azerbaijani-Soviet composer Kara Karayev (1918-1982). The two suites are from 1953 and 1958, respectively. They are The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder (Naxos 8.573122).

Karayev notably was Shostakovich's favorite pupil in the master's later days. And Karayev also made a point of incorporating folk-like melodies, from Azerbaijan, into his music on a regular basis. All that helps to explain his music in some way, but perhaps not always in the obvious ones.

The Seven Beauties comes out of Nizami's 1197 poem on the legend of a king who was married to seven beautiful women, each living in her own pavilion. The ballet and its suite's central section devotes a movement to each of the women who are in part defined ethnically-nationally, so we have "The Indian Beauty", "The Byzantine Beauty", the Slavonic, the Chinese, etc. Each gives Karayev the opportunity to write folkish movements. There are Azerbaijani related melodies when appropriate but then there are those that enable Karayev to extend the range of his expression. This is descriptive ballet music that sounds as much appropriate for the Russian ballet as it stands on its own as concert fare in the suite. One is occasionally reminded of Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella for the broad sweep of its themes and the more descriptive "Euro-Russian" sorts of passages to be found there. There is more to it than that, though.

The same might be said of his second ballet suite, The Path of Thunder, which concerns forbidden love in Apartheid South Africa. This music, too, has descriptive movements that make an effort to incorporate local folk elements into the score, though I must say I don't hear much that sounds especially South African to it. No matter. In this case too there is less of the obvious Azerbaijani strains to be heard, but you'll hear them now and again if you listen closely.

In so far as Karayev's relationship to Shostakovich goes, it comes out especially in Karayev's orchestrational rigor. All the music sounds especially well for the full orchestra and he excels in the manner of the master. Otherwise a Shostakovichian influence can be especially heard in some of the scherzo-like passages that reflect an almost whimsical approach, perfectly well suited for the dances they were intended for.

Karayev here is not a mirror reflection of Shostakovich or anyone else. He was not thoroughgoing in following Shostakovich in his later period, when Dmitri was more open to modernist and more expanded, increasingly personal approaches to the 20th century he was a part of. Karayev is more Russian than modernist. Some of the music here might almost have come from the pen of later Tchaikovsky, still more the Russian nationalists. That is only to say that Karayev stayed more closely to the Russian later Romantic model.

In the end what matters is the music. The two suites here make for captivating listening for anyone with an ear for the symphonic unfolding of the past 200 years. Yablonsky gives the Royal Philharmonic plenty of inspiration and they respond with dramatic readings that bring the music to concrete life. Karayev in the end is no Shostakovich, and that is in his favor, really, since a carbon copy is not what we need. He is an excellent craftsman and the music has some moments of brilliance that spark an otherwise totally well-mapped and well-conceived series of suites.

It will most certainly appeal to the confirmed Russophile and those who seek to know more of the Azerbaijani contingent of Russian composers of the past century. It's also just plain good listening.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Alvin Lucier, Still and Moving Lines, Decibel

Alvin Lucier somehow manages to come up with compositions that have such a personal singleness of purpose that they may exasperate you at first. But the more you listen, the more you cannot forget them. You even at the end like them, or I usually do, but as part of a process. I remember buying his two-LP set years ago, Music On A Long Thin Wire. I was not a very patient person then. Life was something I had to "do" at that point, the more quickly, the better. That music was oh, so slowly moving that I could not at that time bear it. Only later, in fact only in the last 10 years when it was available on CD did I come to appreciate it a great deal.

Now I am not saying that you are going to feel the same way about the group Decibel's performance of four Lucier works, on the CD Still and Moving Lines (Pogus 21072-2). I don't think exasperation will be your reaction, even the first time out. In fact you may well find the works more readily accessible like I did. That may have something to do with the very sympathetic reading that Decibel gives them. They are a Perth, Australia based new music ensemble that favors works that combine acoustic instruments, electronics and the incorporation of the environment into performances. And it just so happens that the four Lucier works do all of that in varying degrees.

Perhaps the more difficult work is "Shelter" (1967) for vibration pickups, amplification system and enclosed space. They use the auditorium of an Australian music conservatory, placing pickups on walls, doors, etc., that receive everyday, typical sound vibrations coming from outside the auditorium and then generate the external-internal filtering and amplification of those sounds into the auditorium via loudspeakers. This is an example of Lucier's more experimental period and the sounds are fascinating but do take some getting used to.

On the other hand, his "Ever Present" (2002) for flute, saxophone and piano with slow sweep pure wave oscillator is much more readily grasped. The combination of instrumental parts and the ever changing pitch of the oscillator has a somewhat more conventional "new music" sound to it and it is masterfully performed.

"Hands" (1994) and "Carbon Copies" (1989) are somewhere in between the two extremes, but generally have that sustained performative rigor (and vigor) that define the best of instrumental Lucier.

It is surely something to do with the talent and sensitivity of Decibel that these works are so communicative. But of course, again, these are some excellent Lucier works covering a wide span of time.

If you want to experience Alvin Lucier and why he remains so central and vibrant to the new music scene, this is a great place to start. It definitely is up among his very best.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Gheorghe Costinescu, An Evolving Cycle, Stephen Gosling

Gheorghe Costinescu (b 1934), a composer we should know more of than we do, was and is a primary modernist who earned an MA in Composition from Bucharest University, studied with Stockhausen, came to New York in 1969 and studied with Berio at Julliard, then went on to receive his PhD from Columbia after studying there with Chou Wen-chung.

On July 31, 2012 I reviewed his Jubilus and Pantomime DVD here and it woke me up to the man's music. Today we return to him in a CD of his piano music, An Evolving Cycle (Ravello 7878). It contains a chronology of four piano works composed between 1956 and 2011, sometimes of Promethean difficulty, reflecting the stylistic movement from baroque through very modern forms, becoming ever more expressionistic and extra-tonal. The works are played with dramatic, dynamic virtuosity by Stephen Gosling, who judging from this recording is a vastly talented artist. He has the fire and the technique these works call for, and has it in abundance. The performances are remarkable.

The four works show the evolution of the composer's thinking from the very early (1956) "Theme and Variations", which shows an already gifted inventive sense, through to the "Sonata for Piano" (1957, revised 2007-08), the "Evolving Cycle of Two-Part Inventions for Piano" (1964) reflecting the gamut of period styles from the baroque onward in inimitable ways, and finally the very abstract "Essay in Sound" from 2011.

The music impresses by its singular dedication to drawing highly structured yet extraordinarily expressive, pianistically sympathetic, beautifully inventive music for 88 keys and a virtuoso with colossal dedication.

I have to say, this one is a milestone in modern piano works and their performance. From first until last we are treated to a major composer (albeit rather unknown) as played by an extraordinarily gifted pianist.

If the modern, advanced world of contemporary pianism rings the right resonances with you, this will be a revelation. By all means listen to this one!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Mark Padmore, Nicholas Daniel, Britten Sinfonia and Jacqueline Shave, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ten Blake Songs, On Wenlock Edge, Jonathan Dove, The End, Peter Warlock, The Curlew

This somewhat unusual release (Harmonia Mundi 807566) features tenor Mark Padmore in a series of song settings by 20th and 21st century English composers. The Britten Sinfonia accompany him for Jonathan Dove's "The End", a newly commissioned work of melancholy beauty. They also provide the same for Peter Warlock's "The Curlew", a pastoral song cycle with an kind of English impressionist glimmer in a moody setting.

Vaughan Williams is represented by two of his somewhat lesser performed but nonetheless enchanting works. "On Wentlock Edge" is a cycle for tenor, piano, and Sinfonia members, the piano part performed nicely enough by Huw Watkins. "Ten Blake Songs" are for tenor and oboe, with Nicholas Daniel playing the oboe part with definitive evocative assurance. Both represent the rustic side of Vaughan Williams and are alone worth the price of admission.

Ultimately it is Mark Padmore who reigns supreme in this set. He shows himself a singer of passion and dramatic elan. The series of works represented here have in common a set of moods and a quasi-impressionist palette of sound transparency.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Heinavanker, Songs of Olden Times, Estonian Folk Hymns and Runic Songs

When you hear a body of music previously unknown to you and the performances are very good, it's sometimes something like meeting up with a relative later in life whose path you never crossed. There is something so familiar about that person, yet you have never seen her or him before.

That's the feeling I get listening to the choral group Heinavanker and their album Songs of Olden Times, Estonian Folk Hymns and Runic Songs (Harmonia Mundi 907488). This is a terrific group and the music. . . I have never had the pleasure to hear the archaic vocal works of old Estonia. As I listened I heard something I've never heard before, with echoes of Orthodox Chant, Gregorian Chant, choral music of Georgia and the Ukraine, Medieval Organum, Mongolian throat singing, all kinds of things it had some relation to yet so different it clearly was not a direct product of any of the others. And it's so pleasingly old that it sounds like it could be an old-in-the-new series of contemporary works. It isn't. The fact that Arvo Part hails from Estonia led me to search for things that reminded me of his work, but it isn't quite like that, either.

Heinavanker, which means in Estonian "The Hay Wain", is a vocal ensemble formed by local composer Margo Kolar in 1996. They sound as they must be, that is, totally immersed in the archaic chant style of the region. They sound phenomenal.

The music covers quite a bit of ground. The melodies range from strictly but evocatively chant-like to folkish song form and everywhere between the two. Harmonies have thirds fourths and fifths and sometimes move in parallel motion, sometimes not. There are occasionally drone elements and then the throat singing makes its appearance now and again, with mostly the whistling sort of technique employed to add color to the ensemble while others sing in normal voice.

This is music you don't forget easily. It haunts. It evokes a world we inherited but never knew about (certainly not in the US anyway) until the recorded medium began bringing world and time to our shores, to our listening ears and hearts. And even at that Estonian vocal music has not been around much here. This is a first for me at least.

Songs of Olden Times is all about discovery. It is about a music that lives on and sounds as much relevant to our musical beings as anything. It's so old it almost sounds new. It is extraordinary music. The performances are totally compelling. Grab this one and drift off to a new yet ancient musical world.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Palestrina, Volume 4, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

I tend to associate cold weather with early vocal music, the baroque especially. Of course there is no one season for it, but it warms my insides this time of year. So as I play the disk up for review this morning I feel a little more warm. You can do little better than Palestrina, that incredibly deft master of counterpoint. The Sixteen give his music loving care as they give is their Volume 4 (CORO 16114) of his music for unaccompanied choir.

As usual the Sixteen under Harry Christophers are an ideal ensemble for the music. They sing with haunting period luminescence. Anybody who at one time ended up with some of the lesser quality Palestrina devoted LPs of the earlier days knows how much the music virtually stands or falls on a passionate, period-oriented vocal ensemble. Early music performances on disk have progressed, thankfully, so that you meet up with clinkers less, but the Sixteen are as near perfect as you can get, virtually speaking.

The program of Vol. 4 is at a high level, with some relative obscurities, like "Missa O Magnum Mysterium", and some others better known, like "Song of Songs", Nos, 7, 8 & 12, but all are quite beautiful. There's a Gregorian Chant arranged for polyphony in the idiomatic Palestrinian style, written to be sung on Christmas morning.

It's all transportingly lovely. Those old cathedrals must have been very drafty back in the day, but the music had to have warmed them up. It does that to me. Palestrina well sung transcends season and time, but listening right now seems especially fine.

Another winner from the Sixteen!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Review Records of the Year, 2013

I decided it was time to start picking my records of the year for the majority of genres I cover. I did not in the past, except to name Wadada Leo Smith's major album set last year, partially because the genres were mixed up higgledy-piggledy in the various blogsites and partially because everything that makes it into a review here is a winner, or else I would not review it. That latter is still true, but with the maturation of my blog pages it's more clear than ever what goes where, as much as that can be. So I am picking this year for nine categories. See the other blogsites for the rest of my choices. Here are the three that belong in the Modern Classical category.

Best Modern Classical Album, New Music: Frances White, In the Library of Dreams (Pogus) See review, June 18, 2013.

Best Modern Classical Album, Repertoire:Hindemith, The Complete Piano Concertos, Idil Biret, Yale Symphony Orchestra, Toshiyuki Shimada (Naxos) See review, November 8, 2013.

Best Modern Classical Album, Wild Card: Terje Rypdal, Melodic Warrior (ECM) See review, September 9, 2013.

Susanne Kessel, Piano . . . a Olivier Messiaen

Not every coupling of composer(s), performer and sound has to be straightforward to succeed. Pianist Susanne Kessel exemplifies that idea with her adventurous hommage . . . a Olivier Messiaen (OEHMS Classics 859). Interspersed with her piano recital on this disk are five short soundscape electro-acoustic collages by American composer Leon Milo. They are in their own way a hommage to Messiaen as well, combining sounds the composer favored in episodic interludes--with bells, birds, gongs, excerpts from his piano works transformed electronically and such. They do much to set up the solo piano performances and give us contrasting pauses in the program.

Ms. Kessel has chosen carefully seven Messiaen works and added quite appropriately Takemitsu's "Rain Tree Sketch II In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen". The Messiaen pieces span a period of 50 years beginning in 1929 and show the composer's evolution over time.

Every work is a gem; not all of them have been recorded a great deal, and Susanne Kessel gives us poetic, authoritative interpretations. She captures the essence of Messiaen in ways that, compared to many earlier performances, seem virtually effortless in their flow and conversational phrasings. All the more impressive this is, since many of the works are by no means easy to play well. Listen to her versions of three of the Regards works and you may like me be amazed at her fluidity with Messiaen's complicated language. She soars where some others have remained closer to the ground.

Of course Messiaen's solo piano works are among the most important, influential, and beautiful of all that were composed last century. Susanne gives you a tantalizing glimpse of why that is so, with such conviction that I for one wish she would tackle the whole corpus.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Alfredo Casella, Concerto per Archi, Cinque pezzi, Guido Turchi, Concerto breve, Quartetto di Venezia

I'll admit that my listening knowledge of Italian composers between Respighi and Dallapiccola, or in other words between Italian Impressionists and the 12-tone composers, is limited. That middle ground of modernism that I am missing I did begin to cover some weeks ago in the piano music of Malipiero (see posting of November 14th of this year). The period is also filled importantly by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) and to a lesser extent, Guido Turchi (1916-2010). Since my young years I have had an old vinyl disk of Ansermet conducting Casella's "La Giara", which I like well, but I have not until now gotten around to exploring more of his music.

I did take the plunge lately by requesting a review copy of the string Quartetto di Venezia playing a number of compositions by Casella and one by Turchi (Naxos 8:573019) and so my journey begins. The two string quartet works by Casella appeal to me very much. The "Concerto per archi", Op. 40b and the "Cinque pezzi", Op. 34 are more-or-less the Italian equivalent of something somewhere between the expressionism of the Viennese pre-twelve-tone work of Schoenberg and his followers and Stravinsky in his neo-classic period, only they sound like Casella. These are multi-movement works with some extraordinarily brio passages, a sometimes nearly atonal tonality, compactness of movement form and some definite Italian touches here and there. The Five Pieces are somewhat less formal and work together more as a suite than a unified work. And that affords the listener with a nice contrast with the other more concerted music.

Guido Turchi's "Concerto breve" has a somewhat similar trajectory from what I hear. I have had trouble burning DVDs lately off of my computer so I was unable to listen to his work at great length but it seems well constructed and fits in quite nicely with the Casella.

The Quartetto di Venezia are very suited to this music and render for us performances that are spirited and sensitive. Bravo. This is one fine disk. It is giving me a good deal to absorb and appreciate. Recommended.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Maxwell Davies, Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 7 & 8, Scottish Chamber Orchestra

The full scope and dimension of Peter Maxwell Davies (b 1934) was unknown to me until I began sampling and appreciating the Naxos ambitious series of issues and reissues devoted to the composer's output. I now see his importance in the English modernist scheme of things, whereas before I only knew him as a performer of a few select vocal works.

Today we have another, a new reissue in the series, covering his Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 7 & 8 (Naxos 8.572355) which are scored for a chamber orchestra with the soloists being double bass and bassoon, respectively. The soloists, who do a fine job, are Duncan McTier on the double bass and Ursula Leveaux on the bassoon. The works were written in 1992 and 1993.

Previously I covered here Nos. 3 & 4 (see August 2, 2013), which I liked quite well. These are as well-crafted as the earlier ones, but for some reason took me more listens to get acclimated. Part of that no doubt had to do with the lower-ranged sonorities that the solo instruments belong to, the other aspect is that often Maxwell Davies scores the chamber orchestra part with more of a lower-range emphasis as well. So you hear the sort of Maxwell-Davidian hard-edged modernist flourish that you did in the earlier concertos but it sounds less brilliant in sonority. No doubt because of that the appreciation for me took a bit more time.

There is a bonus work with a Scottish folk aspect, "A Spell for Green Corn, The MacDonald Dances" (1993), which is a most pleasing, rather light-hearted work. The solo part is played by James Clark on violin. It makes a nicely bright ending to the program.

As the other concerto disk this one was previous released by Collins Classics in the '90s. If you want to start with one, the recording of 3 & 4 may be the more obvious choice, unless for whatever reason you would rather hear the bassoon and double bass, which are of course the more unusual protagonists in such a matchup. Or get both! Certainly you will be treated to a side of Maxwell Davies that gives as much reward back as your attentive listening puts in. Thank you Naxos for releasing this!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Voices of the Earth and Air, Works for Chorus

There is music, we all know, that just by virtue of being sung properly, with lyrics that you can relate to, take on a different dimension than the instrumental equivalent. With chorus that can be especially so, since the collective aggregate gives a very human dimension to things.

That's what I've been thinking as I have been listening to the multi-composer, multi-chorus anthology of new works, Voices of the Earth and Air (Navona 5923).

Five composers of today contribute works. Six choruses divide the singing duties. Some of them are enthusiastic amateur groups, some are better known and I can only assume make some kind of a living doing this. Not all of the works are necessarily the definitive versions I can only assume, but these seem to be premiere recordings for the most part, so that's only natural.

The composers are not well-known in the general sense. All have a good sense of choral possibilities, whether they work in a kind of post-modern mode, flirt with modernism, or flirt with the vernacular (blues for example), or stay close to basic song form. They are Michael G. Cunningham, Alexandra Ottaway, Carol Barnette, David Dickau, and Karen A. Tarlow.

Some works are a capella, some performed with piano and/or other instruments.

Michael G. Cunningham I found the most convincing, especially his four-song "Posies" and and the nine-song "Yeats Madrigals". The music and the Kuhn Mixed Choir sound especially well.

So this is a lot of choral music. I found all of it worth hearing, but particularly the works by Cunningham. There are a couple of songs of winter, snow and the fact that it does pass. But this music is good for any season.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cindy McTee, Symphony No. 1: Ballet for Orchestra, Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Cindy McTee (b 1953) is another contemporary composer who has carved out an orchestral music of her own in the middle of the anarchic present. Like with Roberto Sierra (whose CD was reviewed yesterday), the present and past mingle together in very personal ways in the music presented on the new disk up today, Symphony No. 1 (Naxos 8.559765).

Leonard Slatkin heads up the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for this set of four McTee works, and he and the outfit once again show they are in a very fine fettle indeed. The Rachmaninov cycle (see previous posts) they are doing is virtually landmark, and now they take on some complex modern works with total conviction and sonically spectacular results.

The four works give us, all but one written in the new century, a very good look at an American composer who distinguishes herself as a voice for today. "Circuits" (1990), "Symphony No. 1: Ballet for Orchestra" (2002), "Einstein's Dream" (2004) and "Double Play" (2010) are what's on the program.

There is a tremendous energetic thrust at times to McTee's music. Each composition has much interest. "Einstein's Dream" with orchestra as well as computer parts, has an overtly modernistic spin to to it, and the other works bring such elements in and out of the picture as the composer weaves her magical webs and musico-narrative thrusts, but that goes to show you that Cindy McTee feels free to use as expressive means whatever she hears and sees fit to include. After all we live in a multiplex aural world where a composer (and her audience) is exposed to all manner of styles and genres, both in the air and by voluntary design. So we also hear what sounds like "crime noir" jazz, romantic and impressionistic elements, repetition for short spells and a special McTee sonic color palette that brings all the sound producing resources of the orchestra to bear on what she wishes to realize.

Rather than give a blow-by-blow description of each work, I will just say that every one reaches out to the listener in its own way. As a classically trained percussionist I especially appreciate the imaginative parts she has written for that section, but there is indeed a fine balance of sections throughout, and her excellent string writing gives a foundational grounding that the wind and brass (and percussion) sections punctuate with total effective righteousness and imagination.

If you like the kind of stereo showcase that Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" gives us, Cindy McTee's music here will give you that kind of excitement in its own way. She is masterful and Maestro Slatkin brings it all to us with pretty thrilling results. Get this one, too. You cannot beat the price, so go for it!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Roberto Sierra, Sinfonia No. 4, Fandangos, Carnaval, Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero

Roberto Sierra (b 1953) has a way with the orchestra and a style of his own. He was born in Puerto Rico, studied with Ligeti, teaches at Cornell and is the composer of many works that are admired and performed throughout the world today. All this is background to a new Naxos recording of three of his recent orchestral works, Fandango, Sinfonia No. 4, Carnaval (Naxos 8.559738), played with detailed care and enthusiasm by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero.

These later works have a pleasing multi-dimensionality, with basic thematic-harmonic material that is overlaid often by embellishments, modernistic often enough, advanced and advancing the flow of the music.

As Sierra notes in the liners the Fandango was the subject of classical treatment fairly early on in compositions by Soler, Boccherini and Domenico Scarlatti, and all three composers and their respective compositions form the basis for Sierra's own "Fandangos" (2000), a lively work with brilliantly conceived orchestral elements playing against the Fandango progression.

"Sinfonia No. 4" (2008-2009) is the most ambitious of the three compositions, a full fledged four-movement work that includes a bolero and a clave influenced movement. It is a simultaneous homage to and (what he terms an) anthropophagy (cannibalistic devourment) of the classic symphonic form with Spanish/Latin elements and modernistic reassertions in a most appealing maelstrom of elements that give the work its own structure and mark Roberto Sierra at his best.

The final work "Carnaval" (2007) brings five diverse movements into focus, each one devoted to a mythical creature: Gargoyles, Sphyxes, Unicorns, Dragons and the Phoenix. The music reflects in Sierra's well developed musical language the salient character of each.

These are works that stand apart from the typical offerings one can hear for the orchestra in the new Millennium. They span periods and styles, Spanish idioms and classical forms and transform everything into a Sierranian landscape of kaleidoscopic fullness. Neither overtly modern nor neo-previous in their makeup, they blaze a very personal path through the summing up and summing out that often seems to be taking place right now.

Sierra is important to today without taking a jarringly exceptionalist manner nor complacently adopting the old without transforming it to his own sensibilities. The Nashville Symphony under Guerrero sound perfectly nuanced and bold as needed in their reading of these works.

The disk is a definite winner! Do not let this one slip by if you want to be up on the classical symphony today and the possibilities of realizing, like the Phoenix, something transformed anew from the ashes of a musical legacy or, rather plural, musical legacies. Roberto Sierra does that very, very well and so his music is all the more enchanting for it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Charpentier, Litanies De La Vierge, Motets, Sébastien Daucé, Ensemble Correspondances

When it comes to the French baroque, for vocal music it is hard to beat Rameau. But then there is Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) a composer of great depth and expressivity. A court composer for Louis XIV, he was the rival of Lully for the favor of the King and the fame it could engender. This late in the game my opinion is of no account, nor would it ever would have been. But listening to Sébastien Daucé conduct Ensemble Correspondances in a recent recording of Charpentier's Litanies De La Vierge and Motets (Harmonia Mundi 902169), I am convinced once again.

It does help to hear this music gloriously performed in period style with the chamber ensemble, the authentic stringed instruments, and vocalists in the original manner, without much vibrato.

Charpentier had a great inventiveness, as this music attests. I won't go into much detail here except to say that along with Rameau, there is a real sweetness to his vocal works, when performed in the proper, period-specific style. And these are impeccable, moving renditions. Charpentier may not have always had the courtly pomp of Lully, but in my opinion he is all the better for it.

The result is one happy reviewer. Me. If you have an interest in the period as it played out in France, you should make a point of hearing this disk.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Freiburger Barockorchester and Pablo Heras-Casado, Schubert, Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4

Schubert's early symphonies are somewhat unduly neglected compared to his final works. Some are clearly classical in breadth and scope, some straddle the fence over which lies Beethovian romanticism. All were composed while Schubert was not even out of his teens. I've heard readings of them that give all a more-or-less Beethovenian blast, others that sound like they were written (as they were) for a modest ensemble without special technical polish. The Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado give us renditions of his Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (Harmonia Mundi 902154) that have all the authentic brio of a crack classical period orchestra of modest size yet also as appropriate bring in some of the Beethovian elements in Symphony No. 4 as suggested by the "Tragic" thematic material.

None of the early symphonies were heard by Schubert (or anyone else) during his lifetime, which is tragedy enough. Yet they have real eloquence, including plenty of lyric and dramatic elements worthy of Schubert's genius. Heras-Casado and the Freiburger organization give the music stateliness and stature as called for, passion in good measure and well-balanced directness consistently. They neither over- nor underplay them but find the right balance for each.

These are versions that have the ring of authenticity. I still have several on vinyl, some well-regarded at the time of their release, but they do not satisfy me as these versions do. I hope Heras-Casado and the Freiburger Barockorchester go on to do the whole cycle. They seem perfectly suited to bring out the brilliance of the younger Schubert and I'll bet would give us insightful readings of the later symphonies as well.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Alkan, Oeuvres Pour Piano, Pascal Amoyel

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) shot like a meteor through Europe as a brilliant virtuoso on the piano in his younger years, then abruptly disappeared from the public eye. His was a tortured soul and he no longer wished to concertize. He continued to compose, however, leaving behind him at his death a body of works for the piano that are alternatingly heart rendingly lyrical and explosively virtuosic.

His fate was to leave this earth unrecognized. But as time passes, sometimes genius overcomes obscurity. In the late '60s-early '70s his music began to be heard through the championship of Raymond Lewenthal and others. Recordings appeared. I for one discovered his music in this way sometime in the mid-'70s and have revelled in it ever since.

He was like Franz Liszt a Promethean composer of enormous pianistic difficulty from the technical side. He left no school of followers versed by the master in the intricacies of performance. He had to be learned anew. The fact that his music is at times romantic yet entirely idiosyncratic meant that mastering his music was an enormous task. And like the Bartok String Quartets (as I mentioned last month) it may be that it has taken a number of years for the Alkan piano oeuvre to become "normalized", readily understood if only by a few select pianists.

If that is so Pascal Amoyel is surely one. His CD of Alkan's Oeuvres Pour Piano (la dolce volta 11) gives us a wonderful collection of some of the Master's works played with the passion and sensitivity of one who really understands the "inner" Alkan, to my mind. Five major works appear on the disk, including the monumental "Grande Sonate, op. 33 'Les 4 ages'".

The music is entirely brilliant, some of the very best Alkan you can hear. Maestro Amoyel has chosen wisely and carefully so that the most tender of the lyrical side of Charles-Valentin is on display as well as the tempestuous virtuoso side. Pascal Amoyel handles both sides with an extraordinary musicality and sensitivity to nuance that I must say it is almost like hearing Alkan for the first time. Every part has its place in the whole; the whole comes through with glowing clarity and totally appropriate expressivity. If there is a somewhat eccentric side to Alkan, Amoyel makes it speak with total lucidity, gives it an inevitability, an affectionate familiarity, makes it understandable for anyone who listens attentively. And so far as the more recognizably Jewish strains of Alkan's music, no one understands how that fits in better than Maestro Amoyel. Several listens made that all clear to me. Several more confirmed it.

This is a milestone in the Alkan discography. I know of no better performances of these works. For those who do not know Alkan, here indeed is where to start. For those that do, here is where it all comes together. I hope this recording will do much to convince listeners of Alkan's genius. He was extraordinary and Pascal Amoyel makes the most convincing case I've heard why that is so.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

J. S. Bach, Oeuvres pour clavier/Keyboard Works, Hank Knox

Anyone serious about "serious" music should have at least one disk of Johann Sebastian Bach's harpsichord works. But which one? There are the Well Tempered Clavier Preludes and Fugues, but there are many of them, all worthwhile to say the least, but they fill out a fair number of disks. The Two-and Three-Part Inventions are wonderful, but do not provide a full picture of the more virtuoso side of Bach's keyboard works. Well those certainly should be in anyone's library, but as a starter disk, you are doing yourself a good turn if you consider Hank Knox's recent recording Oeuvres pour clavier/Keyboard Works ( 7775).

It has a good variety of works--those composed out of his well-admired improvisations and those conceived in his head away from the keyboard. There is a good amount of the fugal-contrapuntal style by which Bach continues to astonish, and also moments where there is attention to less complicatedly contrapuntal and more chordal-melodic expression, relatively speaking.

It's a nice introduction to the Master, played with appropriate bravura by Hank Knox, who teaches in the Early Music program at McGill University and has concertized extensively on the harpsichord throughout the world for many years.

You get a "Ricercar a3" from Bach's stunning Musical Offering, the "Overture in the French Manner", the "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue", BMV 903, and several other gems. This is a great place to start if you don't have Bach solo keyboard music in your head as yet. However it also is a pleasing performance and a pleasing programming sequence so that anyone who loves the music will gain a version of these works that glows with authenticity and great spirit.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Inscape*, Sprung Rhythm

New American composers with voices of their own is the focus of Sprung Rhythm (Sono Luminus 92170) brought to you by Inscape*, a chamber orchestra ensemble under the direction of Richard Scerbo. As no doubt may be familiar to readers of this blog the composers' names will probably be unfamiliar. They are the newest of the new, I suppose you could say, but they all have something good to offer. They are Nathan Lincoln-De Cusatis, Joseph Hallman and Justin Boyer.

As is mostly the case with Sono Luminus releases, there is a two-channel CD plus a 5:1 surround Blu-ray Disk. The Blu-ray duplicates the CD program plus adds an additional work by Justin Boyer. (I do not have a Blu-ray player so was unable to hear this bonus work). Otherwise there are five works represented: "A Collection of Sand" and "Chopin Syndrome" by Lincoln-DeCusatis, "Three Poems of Jessica Hornik" and "Imagined Landscapes: Six Lovecraftian Elsewheres" by Joseph Hallman, and "Con Slancio" by Justin Boyer.

First things first. The sound and performances are exemplary. The audio is sparklingly clear and Inscape* performs with musical directness and considerable skill.

Then the works themselves... each one has character and a chamber modernity that has a tonal basis without opting for primality and a rhythmic quality that is mostly quite lively. The influence of Stravinsky can sometimes be felt in that wise. And at the same time there is more a neo-classical feel to the music certainly than the neo-romantic. But that makes the program all that more enjoyable since it is so well done. Soprano Abigail Lennox's performance on "Three Poems of Jessica Hornik" is superlative and a definite high point of the disk.

Rather than to go into details on the works in any depth at this point I will just say that this is music that is so well-crafted and well-performed that virtually anyone who likes the idea of new music will respond favorably. It's a joy to hear this disk!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rick Cox, Fade

Sometimes a piece of music and your own current mood are at geometric or logical opposites. In some cases that means you are playing the wrong music; at other times the music brings you to a different place and that is a very good thing. Today's music is of the latter variety. It is a 25 minute piece by Rick Cox, which he has entitled Fade (Cold Blue 0020). It is very open and spatial, calm and eternal, whereas my own mood is not, thanks in part to the trajectory of my life right now. So in fact I welcome the mood the music takes me, by my own willy-nilly surrender to it.

Cox's work features himself on a very ethereal electric guitar, Thomas Newman on piano, and Peter Freeman on bass and signal processors. Soundscapes of this sort can be busy and climactical, or they can flow like some natural process, a gentle wind across a plain, for example.

Cox's combination of gradually evolving enveloped guitar notes and chords, bass tone envelopes, and isolated piano soundings emerging from a tonally sustained landscape has that natural flow and a more processual unfolding than it has punctuated discrete sonic events. There are no jagged angles as much as gradual curvatures and singular directions.

The result is like a dream of floating in space, like a space walk, slowly drifting in an endless sea of nothingness with no set destination.

It is extraordinarily spatial in that way, very calming but filled with sonic interest. There is nothing programmatic as there might be in a New Age work that aims at the same effect. Here the musical ambience precedes the mood inducement. It is first and foremost a poem of tonal color.

And an excellent one at that.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sydney Hodkinson, Shifting Treks

Now I have the feeling I've encountered composer Sydney Hodkinson before, but if so I cannot recall where. He has written over 250 works. Carter, Sessions, Britten, and Finney according to the press sheet are some of his major influences. He taught at Eastman where he was the director of Musica Nova, and otherwise seems to have been pretty ubiquitous out there.

The new release of three of his large-scale orchestral works, Shifting Treks (Navona 5922), makes it clear that Hodkinson is a mature voice of very real distinction, a modernist who by this point follows his own muse. Of the three works two are performed by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande, the title work by the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronsky. Both orchestras sound very good and give us readings of Hodkinson's music that provide all the fullness and impact needed to do him justice.

The three works cover a variety of moods with a vivid orchestrational flair. "Epitaphion" has an elegiac mysteriousness. "Potpourri: 11 Very Short Works" runs the gamut from an orchestral equivalent of a children's game to spatio-cosmic flight.

But the excellent title work "Piano Concerto No. 1: A Shifting Trek" especially stands out. Here Hodkinson brings a very eloquently expressed modernist soundscape to bear against a piano part that has genuine character, played with elan by Barry Snyder. There is an energy at times to this music which is virtually unparalleled among American composers of the present. It is a showcase for all concerned and sounds great on my stereo too!

Here is a composer who projects his musical self outwards with a very personal yet very much contemporary expression. He has much to say and in the saying brings some very exciting, beautifully crafted orchestral music to our senses.

If you love the monumental potential of orchestral music written today, this one is going to give you a good deal of pleasure. Bravo!