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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

John Luther Adams, The Wind in High Places

John Luther Adams creates music than is more than just imaginative. At times it is pure magic. I named his orchestral work Become Ocean as the "Best Modern Classical, New Music" Record of the Year for the rapidly waning 2014 (see the December 12th, 2014 post on this blog) because it was that...magic. Maestro Adams has successfully, brilliantly managed to give us a modernism (or a postmodernism if you will) that is radiantly representative without being programmatically literal, tonal without being classically sequential, rapturous without direct reference to human or cosmic agency--a music without myths, without much in the way of extra-verbal textuality, with affect but without discernable human intent.

He does something like this again with his new album, The Wind in High Places (Cold Blue 0041). It is some enthralling music for string quartet (JACK Quartet) and for cello orchestra (the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble). There are three works presented in all.

First up is the title piece, "The Wind in High Places." Adams conceives of the string quartet as a sort of 16-stringed wind harp for the three movements that comprise the work. Through open strings and harmonics a varying canvas of aetherial, primal voicings come at us in varying degrees of density and intensity, all representing the wind in natural settings. It has an uncanny tonality that through sound color recreates nature in all its ebbs and flows. The music is striking in its almost primitively elemental, yet vividly natural color.

The most sonorously astounding of the three works surely is the four-movement "Canticles of the Sky." On it are 44 cellos. They create a world of their own, as limitless and even as breathtaking as the sky panoramas they depict. This, as in the other works here, is not thematic in any conventional sense. "Canticles" presents open sounds as variable but then too as unified in expression as drifting clouds. The music creates analogies of vast expanses in space, and like "Become Ocean" they ebb and flow, flux and disperse in ecstatic singularity. There is an ever-shimmering harmonic fundamentality of fourths and fifths and added notes, a stunning largo ground without so much foreground as continuousness. It captures the imagination with a real grandeur that like its subject acts as a benevolent force of nature.

"Dream of the Canyon Wren" returns to the string quartet for a piece that emulates the call of the Canyon Wren, familiar to the composer as a fellow inhabitant of his desert home. It is an evocative work that concludes the program on a positive note. It may not be quite as astounding a piece as the two preceding it, but it gently cradles us and brings us back down to earth in a way most fitting.

This is a beautiful recording with music that enchants. John Luther Adams gives us some of his most intimate music on this one. Is communicates directly and with sublimity.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Michael Vincent Waller, Seven Easy Pieces, for Solo Piano

Young composer Michael Vincent Waller has graced these pages before with his Five Easy Pieces for piano (type his name in the search box for that). He returns with another set of Seven Easy Pieces (Bandcamp). Marja Ilic does the honors as the performer and gives us a reading worthy of the music.

Like the earlier set this is music as a post-minimalist, postmodernist, rather impressionistic series of miniatures that feature irregular scalular melodics in the right hand, accompanied by simple but sometimes contrasting phrasings of accompaniment in the left that can show groupings that give the feeling of dual time signatures in a movement.

They are charming, mostly diatonic efforts (with one using a whole-tone scale) that have a kind of Asian ritual quality not so far removed from Debussy in his exotic mode, only regularized and simplified to offer a beginning pianist a feel for postmodernist irregularity in repetition.

They are not merely pedagogical in that they maintain a fascination as music per se. The seven pieces flow together well in the form of a suite.

Michael Vincent Waller is a composer of promise. I hope we can hear some more involved examples of his music in the near future. The program is short but sweet, coming in at about 15 minutes. You can access the music for a nominal sum at

Monday, December 29, 2014

If, Bwana, The Rationale for a Space Telescope

The If, Bwana group has been making some unpredictable and interesting avant music for decades now. It is a loosely shifting configuration of players headed by Al Margolis, who generally constructs the compositional frameworks and gathers together musicians best suited to playing them. A more or less recent download-only album, The Rationale for a Space Telescope (Pogus, Bandcamp) gives us a new set of sounds to contemplate and get inside of. I've been doing that.

Five different compositions are featured on the album, making good use of Daniel Barbiero on contrabass especially, but also Nathan Bontrager on cello, and Viv Corringham on voice. The studio situation is made good use of via multi-tracking and overdubbing to create ensembles of bass, bass with cello and the two with voices. Margolis operates in the realm of bowed sonorities both tuned and using quarter tones, harmonics and such. Some have a drone-based sound, others activate shifting sound colors born of strings, especially the bowed contrabass, still others create landscapes of gradually encompassing continuousness with both vocals and strings collaging in a sort of spatial clustering that occupies its own world.

Barbiero's rich bass tone predominates through much of the music and sounds especially well. But then Bontrager's cello and Corringham's vocals add much when called upon, depending on the work. The effect is a sort of organic electro-acoustics born of Margolis's keen sense of recombinatory logic. There is both a spontaneous feel and a use of full string sonority in this music. It is not as much formal as it is experimental, which is in keeping with the If, Bwana ethos.

It's music that provokes a response, willy nilly. Listen and be carried away by the sounds you must do or leave it alone, for there is no passive middle ground with this kind of sonics. If, Bwana has always been on the more adventurous side of avant music congregrations. The adventure continues here, quite nicely at that. To find out more or to buy a download go to

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christopher Atzinger, American Lyricism, Piano Music by American Composers

Today is Boxing Day in some places. Happy that to those who participate. Here in the USA it is simply holiday season Friday--but also Kwanzaa! I have dutifully gotten myself out of bed at an early hour to write up my customary reviews. Today we have an interesting anthology of American post-past piano music by Christopher Atzinger, appropriately titled American Lyricism (MSR 1534). On it are five compositions by living American composers writing in a lyrical, tonal vein.

So we have Christopher Theofanidis and his "All Dreams Begin with the Horizon" (2007), Richard Danielpour and his "The Enchanted Garden: Preludes, Book II" (2009), Monica Houghton and her "Sonata for Piano" (1998), Justin Merritt's "Chaconne: Mercy Endures" (2009) and Pierre Jalbert's "Toccata" (2001).

Essentially, then, we have works of the present century, lyrical, poetic, somewhere between post- and neo- in that they at times hearken back to a sort of impressionism but also sound fresh and contemporary. Danielpour includes a "Winter Solstice" movement in his Preludes so we are also timely.

I won't try and run down each work. They fit together by virtue of being expressive and tonal (and at times chromatic) without being romantic, they are poetically played by Christopher Atzinger, and they have both lively and contemplative qualities, depending on where you are on the program.

It's good music, well played!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Woldemar Bargiel, Complete Orchestral Music, Volume One

Toccata Classics, in its continuing mission of unearthing forgotten composers from the last few centuries, gives us a romantic that has suffered near total oblivion after considerable fame in his lifetime, one Woldemar Bargiel (1828-97), the half-brother of Clara Schumann. He appears before us with a symphony and three overtures in the inaugural Complete Orchestral Music, Volume One (Toccata Classics 0277).

The Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasilyev gives us quite credible and dynamic readings of the works. They are firmly in the romantic mode of earlier Beethoven, Schumann, perhaps a hint of Mendelssohn, and perhaps Brahms. The music is well put-together and lively. He sounds rather totally of his era in that the tenor of these works initially merges with those of his contemporaries on first hearings. This style, you could say, was as much his as theirs. The uniqueness of each work takes some time to discern but it is generally there, nothing radical or eccentric mind you, but the music holds its own after repeated listenings.

The overtures in keeping with the era are more like single symphonic movements than medleys of contrasting thematic blocks in the preludian fashion of the earlier period. There is nothing second-rate about any of these works. If he was content to synthesize the existing stylistic tendencies rather than boldly set off on a radically original path of his own, we must accept that and appreciate the quality of the music he produced.

Dean Caceres in the liners calls him "one of the best German composers of the middle of the nineteenth century." The first volume works date between 1852 and 1864, so we certainly get a middle-century view of the composer. Further volumes I presume will cover his later output, which apparently moves a bit closer to Brahms yet retains a neo-classic balance of form and feeling. The works of the first volume one can presume contain the works that made his reputation then. Caceres notes that the music encyclopedias of the 1870s generally give him the long write-ups of a composer of importance. After that we can presume his star gradually faded in the concert public eye to the point today where we know nothing of him.

This new release provides us with a clear snapshot of his first flourishing, with all works presented in their premiere recordings. It will be fascinating to those especially keen on the era but nevertheless also will give the classical-listening generalist music worth hearing for itself. In that I do not hesitate to recommend the disk for those who welcome new music from this period. It does not disappoint.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rued Langgaard, String Quartets Vol. 3, Nightingale String Quartet

Some composers are enigmatic. You need to come to them on their own terms and forget about expectations. Such a one is the Danish Rued Langgaard (1893-1952), who countered the modern doings of contemporary Carl Nielsen by remaining in the realm of a late romanticism that was as much personal as eclectic. He was at odds with his times and consequently was not given much attention until years after his death.

These days he is getting something of his due. A prime example of that is the Nightingale String Quartet's acclaimed recordings of the complete quartets in three installments. I have been listening to Volume Three (DaCapo 6.220577). I missed the first two but this one tells the story well. It includes the first and fifth quartets. All the quartets are youthful works written in a concentrated span beginning in 1914 when the composer was just 21. The first was revised in 1936 and enjoys its first recording here. The fifth was written in 1925 and revised between 1926 and 1938.

All the quartets were apparently inspired by a hopeless love affair he had during the summer of 1913. They are filled with longing but not sentimentality so much. You can hear the influence of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms in the first and fifth quartets, but then something else as well, something Langgaardian.

Both quartets show real craftsmanship and inspiration. The Nightingale Quartet do a splendid job bringing out the drama and nuances of the works and in so doing go a long ways in helping you forget his out-of-time stance. In the end it doesn't matter how his music should have sounded in his era. This is music written out of an inner necessity more than a stubborn refusal to move with the times, or so it sounds to me. As a bonus we get a very short scherzo movement the composer set down in 1950. And then there is silence.

The music and performances together make for a very rewarding experience, beyond what you might have expected, yes, but in every way worth immersing oneself in. The Nightingale Quartet take to these works with clarity, passion and the best kind of four-way dialoging. Bravo!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Paul Osterfield, Sound and Fury, Chamber Music

Perhaps the thing that most perplexes the novice listener to high modernist music (and advanced jazz, for that matter) is a puzzlement about affect. Pop songs have lyrics that tell you often enough how to feel. And the romantic era utilized affect codes at times, especially when the music was programmatic, that gave you often enough a range of emotional states you could pin onto the sounds, especially in opera. Minor key is sad, Beethoven's Fifth is about fate (or is it really?), Requiems, lost love, etc. It was always pretty clear where affect in La Boheme could be found, though that's perhaps a more extreme example than the norm. Not that it was always all that simple but a listener who needed some immediate grasp on feeling in the music could generally lock onto something pretty quickly, whether or not it did full justice to the music and what it "meant."

High modernist music is generally a complex response to the modern age we live in. The music in a way makes a representative model for all the complexities and complications of the industrial and perhaps post-industrial worlds we experience, getting stuck in traffic queues day-after-day to go to jobs connected to a whole in complex and often enough in unclear ways, being in one's home space and experiencing the various technologies that both simplify and make complex our recreational lives....being subject to authoritative force without necessarily being able to identify those driving all of it....Nothing about modern life is exactly simple, and the modernist musical experiencing of it both models it all and gives out with a complex affect that is often deeply ambiguous and not always a matter of clarity.

What puzzles or irritates the novice is what perhaps most interests the confirmed listener. One does not seek to label every passage with x or y feeling, though sometimes there may be something thematic about the music that does that regardless--in the religious music of Messiaen, for example. But even then the complexities express a complex of affect that does not in all its fullness give you a simple feeling key. Late Romanticism often enough had those complexities--a Mahler symphony can be a bundle of feelings expressed at times obliquely. But high modernism is also often enough an abstraction, with real life in there somehow, but not in any literal, monolithic way.

So we turn today to an anthology of high modern chamber music which by its title seems to give us a key to affect. Sound and Fury (Navona 5978) it is named, a worthy grouping of four compositions by Paul Osterfield. The album is titled after the piano trio that leads off the program. The music there is quite declamatory, dynamic, perhaps at times filled with a generalized "fury"--at times a complex of direct hits in a boxing match with inertia, perhaps. But Osterfield is no literalist, so the fury here is not especially referential to something outside as much as it is a part of the internal musical workings of note-against-note and note-with-note. After all, and this is key, Shakespeare has one of his characters tell us that life is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." So in a way the music is about the complexity of meaninglessness as we experience it today, perhaps.

A little bit about Osterfield: he was born in Nashville in 1973, began playing the cello early-on and gradually turned to composing. He studied with Donald Erb among others, composing as he went and earning the various degrees that enable him to teach (at Middle Tennessee State University) while he continues to build his reputation and output as a composer of note.

The four works here sound quite good, thanks to the excellent abilities of the Blakemore Trio, pianists Caleb Harris and Lynn Rice-See, violinists Michael Jorgensen and Andrea Dawson, and Angela DeBoer on horn. They realize the music with care and feeling.

All four works have a dynamic charge, a full into-the-fray sort of excitement. They tend toward the outer edges of tonality and beyond. And the works each have a sort of individual stamp to them which is in part a matter of instrumentation, and as much or more a product of Osterfield's high inventive imagination. So we get the piano trio driving our attention with "Sound and Fury," the virtuosic clout of the "Etudes for Piano, Book 1," the abstraction in sound for violin and piano which is quite well done and fitting to the subject matter in "Kandinsky Images," and the concretely whispy, sometimes folksy modern matter-of-factness of violin, horn and piano on "Smoky Mountain Autumn."

There is much to explore here and the explorations pay off with an ever heightening appreciation for the highly wrought, master craftsmanship and art in the pieces. Osterfield is a modernist natural. This music shows a ready brilliance of sorts that comes off convincingly as no mere exercise in advanced sound, but with an organic centered quality that shows the sure hand of a composer of talent. Affect? It is here. This is music with feeling, but not simply so.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Karel Husa, Music of Life, Orchestral Masterworks

Karel Husa is a name I've heard mentioned over the years, but I must admit I have not experienced much of his music to speak of until now, aside from a few examples on Louisville Records. He was born in Prague in 1921, studied with Honegger and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, came to the US in the early '50s and has resided here since, teaching at Cornell and Ithaca for many years. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his "String Quartet No. 3."

Impressive credentials, to say the least. His music lives up to expectations. A fine recording of three orchestral works is available as Music of Life: Orchestral Masterworks (Ablaze 00008). They show a fully modernist mastery of orchestral forces and a keen inventiveness. The world premiere recordings of his "Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra" and "Pastoral for String Orchestra" are included, along with "Scenes from The Trojan Woman."

The "Pastoral" is short to the point of terseness, but engaging. The other two works are more boldly modern and dynamically enthralling with their dissonances and orchestral fireworks. This is music outside the fractured realm of Darmstadt Serialism, more sequentially unfolding and A-to-B in syntax.

The "Cello Concerto" has a very expressive, rather dark solo part played here with finesse and an excellent idiomatic sense by Paul York. The music bursts forth with firey orchestral colors and emblazoned climaxes.

"Scenes from The Trojan Woman" has some beautifully buoyant percussion and extraordinarily apocalyptic orchestral passages that show you the Husa of vivid contrasts.

All three works are impressive and the performances by the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra under Kimcherie Lloyd sound great.

You modernist-leaning listeners out there will find this one an exemplary introduction to orchestral Husa. It is a rather blazing tribute to a composer who clearly deserves more recognition. Recommended!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gerald Cohen, Sea of Reeds, Works for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble

Something that is easy to like is not necessarily facile. I would say that of composer Gerald Cohen's recent album of compositions for one or more clarinets and chamber ensemble, Sea of Reeds (Navona 5979).

Quite the opposite applies in this case. Cohen's music is filled with vibrant melody, rhythmic clarity, drive and compositional construction that show a mastery of and a real sympathy towards the clarinet.

That is coupled with instrumentalists who clearly love this music and match the notes with execution that brings the music vividly to life. The Grneta Ensemble of two clarinets and piano with and without the viola of Maria Lambros or the violin of Jennifer Choi (and that includes Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski on clarinets and Alexandra Joan on piano) bring out the Baltic-Jewish-Jazzish charm of the music rather brilliantly.

What we have are four works/suites written between 2007 and 2010 and they work together to bring you a big picture of a Gerald Cohen inspired by the instrumentation and filled with things for the artists to play/say. The music speaks naturally, unforced yet with a classic balance.

"Variously Blue," "Sea of Reeds," "Yedid Nefesh" and "Grneta Variations" overflow the disk with expressive music that revels in tonality yet of a more folksy eastern than academically classical sort. You may hear a touch of Stravinsky or Prokofiev in the driving lucidity, but that can just as much have to do with the rootedness of the music as any direct connection or influence.

This is a sheer delight to hear, a chocolate-fudge sundae of excellently intertwining musical syntax.

Three cheers for this one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Amy Schendel, Uncommon Ground, Contemporary Works for Trumpet with Horn, Trombone, Piano and Organ

As per yesterday's post and the idea that brass music feels seasonal, we have another one today, quite different but equally lively. It is an anthology of modern works by trumpeter Amy Schendel and others, called Uncommon Ground (MSR 1536).

Six contemporary works are presented, all featuring trumpet and other instruments. These are not well-known composers, at least not to me, but the works have plenty of substance and spirit.

Patrick Schulz contributes "Fanfare for Trumpet and Piano," Jean-Francois Michel "Suite Pour Trompette, Cor et Trombone," and also "Eveils Pour Trompette, Trombone et Piano," Joseph Blanda "French Suite," Wayne Lu "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano," and Harald Genzmer "Sonate fur Trompette in C und Orgel."

These are works with a straightforwardly contrapuntal or generally through-composed demeanor, with a modern tonal palette to lesser or greater degree, depending. They each reflect a sort of neo-classic stance, in the sense that they take into consideration the past via a reflection on classic music for brass, yet are thoroughly of our time.

Amy Schendel acquits herself well, with a nicely burnished tone and a way around her parts that are given weight by the fine work of the other brass players and keyboardists represented on the program.

It is a program of worthy compositions, played with verve and even joy.

It's a good one!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thompson Brass Ensemble, Barbara Bruns, Music for Brass & Organ

I associate brass ensembles with this time of the year--winter and Christmas. Part of that is because of my experience in high school band and the brass choirs my second band director assembled for winter concerts, partly because the association is part of the season anyway.

So when I received recently the new disk by the Thompson Brass Ensemble and organist Barbara Bruns, namely Music for Brass & Organ (MSR Classics 1481), I was ready and predisposed toward it.

It's a nice program covering Gabrieli, Buxtehude and Bach as one might expect, but also Strauss, Hovhaness, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov--and others you might not typically come across in such an anthology.

In truth it all works quite well. The ensemble and Ms. Bruns give us stirring renditions. The three Fisk organs from three New England churches sound regal and dramatic, and the brass is recorded with the spatial staging you would expect.

The beauty of the music shines forth in splendor and I find myself in the spirit of the season every time I listen. It is a very good one, with just enough of the unexpected to give your ears new life.

Very recommended.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Review Records of the Year, 2014

As in keeping with last year, it is again time for my "Records of the Year" picks. With so many exciting new recordings coming out in 2014 it has been tough to narrow it all down to just three. See the other blogsites for the rest of my choices. Here are those that belong in the Modern Classical category.

Best Modern Classical Album, New Music: John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (Cantaloupe) See review, October 23, 2014.

Best Modern Classical Album, Repertoire: Milhaud, L'Orestie d'Eschyle (The Oresteia of Aeschylus), Kenneth Kiesler, University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, etc. (Naxos) See review, September 29, 2014.

Best Modern Classical Album, Wild Card: Markus Reuter, Todmorden 513, Concerto for Orchestra, Thomas A. Blomster, Colorado Chamber Orchestra (7D Media) See review, June 25, 2014.

Bruce Levingston, Heavy Sleep, Music for Solo Piano

The right pianist with the right imagination can fashion a program that is very...right. Pianist Bruce Levingston has done this vividly on his album Heavy Sleep (Sono Luminus 92183). What we have in the artist's vision is a series of piano works where "each relates either directly or spiritually to the theme of death, rebirth, or both," to quote the pianist from the liners. Every work also refers obliquely or directly to other composers and/or their own works. The idea is that "together, these works offer a touching perspective on the close spiritual connectivity we all share as artists and as human beings, culture to culture, past and present."

This germinating set of ideas gives Levingston the inspiration to make the music express deeply. It is a pianistic monument in its own way to the ideas and composers involved.

Two modern works serve as bookends to the music of Bach himself or his music as represented in piano transcription. It begins with Timo Andres' "Heavy Sleep," then proceeds to the Bach-Reger "Chorale Prelude in B Minor," the Bach-Siloti "Prelude in B Minor," continues with a Bach Prelude and a Fugue, both also in B Minor, his "Chromatic Fantasy in D Minor," a Fugue in D Minor, Bach-Kurtag's "Gottes Zeit Ist Die Allerbeste Zeit" and finally Mohammed Fairouz's "El Male Rachamin" in memory of Gyorgy Ligeti.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow description of the music here. Suffice to say that Levingston makes of the Bach something entirely contemporary seeming and/or brings out the linear baroque qualities of the modern works. Levingston makes all flow as one by his sheer pianism and his abundant interpretive instincts.

The new works (in their recorded world premieres) are significant and deep, and share with Bach an ingenious overarching sense of the drama of intensely realized inner workings. Bruce Levingston is a pianistic poet of the highest sort. The disk fills you with the wonder of music and how it can express some of humanity's most profound concerns.

I recommend this one to you without hesitation. It is a winner on every count.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Grazyna Bacewicz, Symphony for String Orchestra, Capella Bydgostiensis Chamber Orchestra, Smolij

I was fortunate to come across the music of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) in the course of a concert I attended of the NY Philharmonic under Kurt Masur back in the '90s as part of my regular NY beat. Since then the Polish composer has gotten my attention and rewarded me with some excellent music.

That continues today as we have a new release by Mariusz Smolij and the Capella Bydgostiensis performing the Symphony for String Orchestra (Naxos 8.573229) along with her "Concerto for String Orchestra" (1948) and a new chamber orchestra version of her "Piano Quintet No. 1" (1952/2013) put together by the conductor.

This is vintage Bacewicz at her very best, played with zeal and distinction. The "Concerto" leads off the program with a stirring first movement and delivers throughout. Bacewicz has a basic modern, harmonically advanced sensibility and a pleasing, rhythmically forward momentum during this period that puts her very loosely in a neo-classical realm, somewhere between Stravinsky and Bartok but also fully Bacewiczian.

The 1946 "Symphony" has no less charm and invigoration and the "Piano Quintet" arrangement gives us yet a third work, this beginning with great mystery and following through with a singing modern quality, both jaunty and expressive. Ewa Kupiec takes on the piano part convincingly, which as arranged now seems more concerted than it might otherwise sound in the original quintet version.

Smolij and the Capella come through with interpretations of great dash and panache, plus a sensitivity toward the brittle lyric qualities that also set Bacewicz off as something special.

This is prime Bacewicz, done with the spirit the music demands. It is an excellent recording. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Deep Listening Band, Dunrobin Sonic Gems

There are improvisatory outfits that engage in a fully improvisational approach who nevertheless form in the main a part of the new music covered on these pages. AMM and MEV are well-known outfits who became known especially in the '60s. Another is the Deep Listening Band, who celebrated their 25th anniversary in October 2013 with a concert in Ottawa that is now out on CD as Dunrobin Sonic Gems, subtitled "A Live Recording Simulating the Cistern Acoustics" (Deep Listening Institute 47-2014). A word of explanation: the original Deep Listening album was recorded live in 1988 inside the Dan Harpole Cistern, a remarkable acoustic environment that naturally produces sustained reverberations of 45 seconds. That acoustical environment is electronically recreated for this concert by Jonas Braasch. This recording reproduces what was heard at Dunrobin Sonic Gym. It is a performance of the band's work-in-progress, "Sonic Gems."

The two key members of the band over the 25 years of its existence are composer-accordionist Pauline Oliveros and trombonist-composer Stuart Dempster, both names that should be familiar to anyone who listens to new music in any depth. David Gamper was a third long-time member who passed away, sadly, in 2011, for whom the recording is dedicated.

The band includes a number of guests in Jonas Braasch on saxophone in addition to the acoustic modelling, Jesse Stewart on percussion, Johannes Welsch on gongs, and IONE on opening incantation.

Though there is collective improvisation as an important part of this music, it is guided by the sorts of sounds that work in such an extraordinary acoustic world. How much is generally pre-planned I cannot say, but most certainly the heightened musical instincts of the band play a key part, and also that the music has a definite flow to it that implies structural elements, in whatever way they may be realized.

In the end you surrender to the magic of the musical world created and let it envelop your senses. The long sustains allow the music to blossom forth with sound that is remarkably full at times for the size of the ensemble, at other times there is a sacred, intimate quietude no less captivating. In any case "deep listening" between the musicians and between the band and the audience, which includes us, is maximized in ways that make one feel a part of something cosmically larger than what one experiences in ordinary life.

The original 1989 recording in the cistern set the tone for the music we hear. Some 25 years later the sounds continue to grow in a profound sense.

This is music to take you both inside and outside your normal plane of being. It is more than just ambient. It is cosmic.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hilary Tann, Musical Landscapes

Some music lately has taken an unabashed turn to tonal beauty. That is true of the music of Hilary Tann, as heard in chamber works on Musical Landscapes (Centaur 3357). On it we experience eight short to mid-length works written by Ms. Tann between 1984 and 2012. The works are for configurations of violin, cello and piano, alone and in various groupings.

The works sometimes refer backwards to earlier styles, from Gregorian Chant onwards, but nevertheless the musical syntax has the stamp of Hilary Tann on it throughout. Perhaps post-romantic radical tonality might be a way of thinking of the music. There is a "beyond" quality that speaks to our own times in an original way. Pianists Eunmi Ko and Albert Kim, violinist Sini Virtanen and cellist Andrew Barnhart bring out the expressive eloquence of the music with care and heartful feeling.

There is an introspective restraint at times that puts the listener in a sort of dream landscape very pleasant to experience. But the music has underlying sinew and substance.

I am captivated by the program and recommended it to you who seek new avenues in tonality today. It charms consistently without pandering in the slightest. New age it isn't. Our age it is.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Anders Koppel, Marimba Concertos, Bednarska, Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Christensen

One hundred years ago the marimba was very much a rarity in classical music. Nowadays it is a staple of many percussion sections and an important member of some chamber ensembles. There are also solo pieces and concertos. Probably nobody else has done as much for the marimba concerto as composer Anders Koppel (b. 1947). There are four concertos to date, all of which can be heard on the recent volume Marimba Concertos (Da Capo 6.220595). Marimba soloist Marianna Bednarska joints the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen for Concertos 1-4 plus a short two-minute cadenza "P.S. to a Concerto."

Koppel's music is filled with lively strait-moving momentum. Tonality is a key feature but not especially neo-anything as much as contemporary. There are slow movements here and there and a general emphasis on memorable virtuosity in the marimba part. The orchestra essentially appears mostly in a supporting role, with counterparts and thematic roles almost always in direct complement to the intricate marimba parts. The concertos are all rather recent, having been written between 1995 and 2006. They sound as fresh as they are.

Marianna Bednarska does a great job as the soloist, giving us performances with the dash and flourish one might expect. She is nearly always in motion and it is clear she was thoroughly prepared to shine as she does. The orchestra does a fine job as the perfect foil and contrasting voice in the music. There are times when the music has almost a rock feel, other times the motion suggests Asian and African and of course European elements, but all of it has an unmistakable Koppel imprint to it.

It is most essential listening for anybody with an interest in the marimba in contemporary music. But it is quite engaging and enjoyable in its own right.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Lyatoshynsky, Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, "Slavonic," Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra, Theodore Kuchar

Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968) is considered the father of modern Ukrainian classical music. He wrote five symphonies during his active career. They were recorded by the Ukrainian State Symphony under Theodore Kuchar and released in three volumes some time ago on Marco Polo. They are back in print on Naxos now. I covered the second volume here (Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3) the other day. I am back with the final volume, containing Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, "Slavonic" (Naxos 8.555580).

I am happy to say that whatever reservations I may have had about the middle symphonies I do not have for the final two. The Ukrainian organization under Kuchar once again give us spirited readings, and this time thematic elements stand out in memorable fashion. Both were written late in Lyatoshynsky's career (1963 and 1965-66, respectively) and show a deft combination of expressive tonal modernism and Ukrainian folk elements. The way Lyatoshynsky puts all of it together shows the stamp of originality. There is no mistaking this music for somebody else's.

There are moments of dramatic upheaval, such as the opening movement from No. 4, reflective moments, generally in the inner movements, and some great thematic elements, such as the infectiously jaunty dance-folk motive taken up in the first movement by the orchestra as a set of developed variations and reprised more literally on chimes in the finale of No. 5.

It is music that makes its mark on your listening mind as it shows a mastery of the orchestral idiom. This is Lyatoshynsky at his best. Any Slavophile, anyone interested in Eastern European modern music will find this disk both very enlightening and enjoyable.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Anna Gourari, Visions Fugitives, Piano Music of Prokofiev, Medtner, Chopin

The mid-19th to early-20th centuries were in many ways the golden years for solo piano music of a thoroughly poetic pedigree. Beethoven set the bar high in his piano sonatas and the rest followed. Anna Gourari has a deep sense of those poetics and conveys to us how they lay out with three paradigmatic works on her album Visions Fugitives (ECM New Series B0017622-02).

This is her second ECM album, following on the triumph of her first (type her name in the search box for my review of the earlier one).

Prokofiev (1891-1953) provides the centerpiece of the program with the early modern masterpiece Visions Fugitives, a 20-movement, widely shifting series of "fleeting visions" that capture a world of sensation and substance, from the sound of peeling bells to the sound of the harp, in contrastingly varying moods from gentle to sarcastic, typical of Prokofiev the melodist and creator of churning mobile structures with real life. It is a work at the center of the modern Russian School and Gourari's gifts bring the music to us in the most sensitive, atmospheric terms.

From there we get a brief chestnut from Nicolai Medtner (1880-1951), his "Fairy Tale in f minor," three brief minutes of dark charm.

And to conclude the program we have Chopin's monumental Sonata No. 3 in b minor, op. 58. He was the composer who did so much to expand pianistic poeticism in his lifetime (1810-1849), paving the way for Liszt and the Russians who followed, crafting an expressive language that in many ways is still with us. Gourari tackles the complex master sonata with fire and reflective whimsy.

Gourari triumphs on this program. She handles difficult technical parts with a speech-like continuity that flows the music wonderfully well. The Prokofiev has all the mystery and movement we could ask for. She understands his at times eccentric evocative moods and gives us a reading that glows with freshness. The Chopin has a weighted depth of feeling that neither under nor overplays the sentiments so nobly and fully, pianistically expressed.

In every way Anna Gourari brings us her brilliant interpretive skills. The Prokofiev sings, the Chopin reverberates. A beautiful recital!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nicole Lizee, Bookburners

When you think postmodern, the "anything goes" idea can have something to do with it. New instrumental combinations, new technologies, a return to tonality, though this does not always imply classical tonality, an eclectic approach to form, a disregard of separating "high" and "low" and, sometimes, the incorporation of found elements. All that serves to introduce to you Montreal-based composer Nicole Lizee and her recent CD/DVD Bookburners (Centrediscs 20514).

Ms. Lizee brings to us a full palette of sound colors and effective pomo compositional ideas, at times embodying the idea of "glitch," which involves utilizing older audio technologies in ways that involve either their intentional malfunctioning in controlled situations or their appropriation for uses they were not intended. The advent of the turntablist is an example that is widespread and needs no explanation. Nicole makes creative use of turntable virtuosity in her works at times.

The most spectacular example is the duet between a turntablist and an electric cello on the bonus DVD, for the title "Bookburners." There is here an ingenious use of selected repetitions of record sequences as motives to launch the overarching cello part. It is lyric and impressive.

"White Label Experiment" pits So Percussion with Ms. Lizee on turntables and omnichord for an adventurous environment of sound that hangs together as composition. "Ouijist" is a chamber work that haunts in its mix of alto flute, violin, double bass, omnichord and spectres.

"Son of the Man with the Golden Arms" uses percussion quartet, two electric guitars and solo drums to create a kind of exploded rock virtuosity, shards of rock identity and splinters of sound hanging together in a disjointed but very musically fascinating way. The drum part is tough but beautifully executed by Ben Reimer.

Finally we have from the DVD "Hitchcock Etudes" for piano and glitch. Soundtrack music and dialog are torn apart and reassembled in a disjointed melange that corresponds with Hitchcock film clips that are similarly treated in a synchronized way with the music to form a complete audio-visual glitch. On this one the seeing of it all adds a crucial element. I am not entirely sure that the audio alone would be nearly as effective. But that's the point, I guess.

In the end we have an impressive compositional program of music that stands out as exceptional, original, brittle and speaking to the sounds of the malfunctioning technology around us, turning it into art rather than the sort of cursing episodes one might find oneself in when you expect Aye-to-Bee continuity from your equipment.

She is an original, both lyrical and disembodied, innovative in her minimalist deconstruction, thoroughly a voice of today. An original voice in full-flower, in fact.

Highly recommended music.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Heitor Villa-Lobos, Symphony No. 10 "Amerindia," Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Choir, Karabtchevsky

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and his music towers over the modern musical creations of South America as Brazil's greatest composer to date, the father of modern classical Brazilian music, a genuine original who speaks to us today directly and satisfyingly. His symphonies are not very well known. There are twelve in all and the Sao Paulo Symphony under Isaac Karabtchevsky plan to record them all for Naxos. Several volumes are already completed (type in his name in the search box above for coverage here), the latest a rendering of his Symphony No. 10 "Amerindia (Sume, Father of Fathers) (Naxos 8.573243). It was written in 1954 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Sao Paulo.

It is a spectacular work of great sonic impact. The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Choir and the soloists in Leonardo Neiva, baritone, and Saulo Javan, bass, create a complex mosaic that exemplifies late orchestral Villa-Lobos at his very best. It is symphonic, yet at the same time an oratorio about the origins of the area and its early history, dealt with somewhat impressionistically but in ways totally characteristic of the later musical language of the master.

So we have the region enveloped in a state of nature, the rise of indigenous residents, the local Indians, the mythological pre-Columbian hero Sume revered by the Tamoyo, the appearance of the legendary Jesuit priest Father Anchieta and on from there.

This recording is based on a new critical edition of the symphony put together by Max Eschig for Criadores do Brasil.

The music itself reminds me most pleasingly of Villa-Lobos's later work of this period, Forest of the Amazon, originally intended as the soundtrack for the movie version of "Green Mansions" but only partially used. Like that wonderful work the Symphony No. 10 has Villa-Lobos envisioning a primal past of nature and indigenes, a choral fantasia that alludes to music of the ancient past in impressionistic ways, phantasmagorias of choral and orchestral dramatics that tend to have lively rhythmic-seismic shifts and motion. Like that work we feel the touch of the master symphonist transforming raw material influenced by his brilliant instincts into a sprawling, complex tapestry of vivid sound color and affect.

Of all the Villa-Lobos symphonies released thus far on Naxos this one stands out as a major work, a living entity of wonderful sound.

I cannot comment on how this new recording stacks up against previous ones since I have not heard them. Nonetheless I can say that Karabtchevsky and company leave nothing to be desired in their broad sweep and massive impact. It is a moving performance of a work that stands among the tallest orchestral trees planted by Villa-Lobos in his very productive lifetime.

Highly recommended.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Michael Nyman, Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial

English composer Michael Nyman has an enigmatic way about him. Every work seems to bring something unexpected to your ears. The result, for me anyway, is that there are works of his that hit me very squarely in my pleasure zone and others that do so less. It is not something that I could explain easily (especially on a Monday morning) except to say that he sometimes combines high and low and that in itself does not have directly to do with my reactions, but it is sometimes the way he does it.

Today's work holds together beautifully, for all the right reasons. It was written off and on as Nyman was composing music initially unrelated but in the midst of it all he dealt with the shock and grief following the soccer massacres of Liverpool fans in Brussels in 1985 where 41 died, and then the Hillsborough incident in 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans perished in soccer riots there.

Ultimately the music was variously transformed and added onto until this year when the Liverpool Biennial commissioned Nyman to expand the work into a fully fleshed out symphony for large orchestra, choral ensemble and mezzo-soprano. What we hear on the CD at hand is the full version. Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial (MN Records 136) gives us four contrasting sections, all coming to terms with the tragedy, in sorrow and a spirit of remembrance.

The first movement, "The Singing of the Names," features mezzo-soprano Kathryn Ridge in her role singing each of the 96 victims names to full orchestral accompaniment. It is movingly performed and written in such a way that the melodic thrust of the music, the intense and harmonically elaborate musical sequence, gives us all the feeling of grief at the senselessness. The three movements that follow are more minimalistic with repetitive structure an important element. They serve to keep both an expressive resoluteness and a mourningful sorrow alive and very much before our hearts and minds.

"Family Reflections" is the slow movement, dealing with the loss felt by the families of the victims in terms of tender anguish. It is long-formed with gently undulating repetitions in marimbas, etc., underpinning a long, winding string and choir elegy of definite beauty. "The 96" repeats a dirge like motif and the finale, "Memorial" has an unrelenting baroque-like progression that builds to a rather huge climactic outburst.

It is a piece totally worked out in harmonic tonality and as such looks slightly backwards to the sounds of classic and preclassic era requiems. Yet the intensity and continuousness of the music puts it into the post-modernist present.

Kathryn Ridge, the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, all under conductor Josep Vicent, give us their all. A very committed performance as we hear on the CD makes the work come alive. Anything less would not have had the same impact. So we get I can only presume exactly what the composer heard and it moves us greatly.

It is one of Nyman's very best works. It cannot work as background music so if you get this plan to listen and ride the waves of grief and loss it so convincingly communicates to us. Bravo!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Michael Torke, Miami Grands, Music for Ten Pianos

It happens to be Thanksgiving morning here in the States. And to show my thanks for the music I post one more before getting on with the day. Today a most unusual work, scored for ten grand pianos, written by Michael Torke, a minimalist-post-modern composer with his own special melodic gifts.

Miami Grands (Ecstatic ER092251) consists of 12 movements, mostly major diatonic music in a lyric mode. There is a small amount of repetition now and again, but either in ostinato form or continually developed, so that it sounds not-so-much minimal than what might be heard in works of an earlier period. What is a constant is a propulsive continuity, an almost pop-rock barrage of sound that when all ten pianists get going is considerable.

There is a clear air brightness about it all. The rather chipper music comes off as continuous melody, with modulations at times, generally through-composed and more open than an a-b-a song form would be.

It is contemporary sounding without much of a neo-whatever hearkening back. The huge sound of the amassed pianos make this one very out front, a boldly going forward sort of music.

I found it rewarding to hear and very up in mood. You want an energy booster, this one would do that for you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Martin Bresnick, Prayers Remain Forever

A personal voice among today's composers is not the rule, no less so today than in ages past. There are those few who stand out with a twist, a way of doing what others do, but not like how others do it. Martin Bresnick qualifies, going on his latest release of chamber works, Prayers Remain Forever (Starkland 221). I reviewed his exceptional Caprichos Enfaticos, based on Goya's anti-war drawings, way back on November 14, 2011, and it too is in its own world.

I say he has a "personal voice" once again because all six compositions in the current program turn the contemporary into the Bresnickian with a minimum of means. The largest ensemble, a quartet of oboe, violin, viola and cello, remains intimate, is more like a lively conversation among friends than an imperial utterance destined for the rafters of a large hall. The recorded media seems absolutely right for this music, as it communicates directly to you the listener without pretense or assumption.

Each work occupies a post-modern world of its own. There is "Josephine the Singer" (2011) with its Kafka-referring neo-classical, neo-romantic solo violin that seems to be driving anything but applause, but rather to internalize a search for some kind of meaning in sound. The solo piano pieces differ greatly. "Strange Devotion" (2010) uses space and silence to offset a series of tender diatonics that gradually grow in complexity and modulatory wanderings; or "Ishi's Song" (2012), which features vocals and a definite Eastern pentatonicism folkishness that appeals as it gives you an unexpected turn. It is based on a song sung by the last Yahi-Yani Indian of California.

"A Message From the Emperor" (2010) features two vibes/marimba and a spoken part that concerns the mysterious whispered communication of a royal personage on his death bed to "the solitary one." The latter then sets out to communicate it (and we don't know to whom) to the accompaniment of interlocking contrapuntal shifting patterns on the mallets. The narrative continues and I won't give away the ending, but it is a story mythologically redolent of the East, a sort of musical Zen koan.

"Prayers Remain Forever" (2011) uses cello and piano to an expression not unlike "Strange Devotion," both tonal, modern and post-that working around intervallic and harmonic cyclicality that spirals more than repeats, developing as it evolves.

"Going Home" (2010) is the quartet I mentioned earlier. It begins with simple long notes and intervalic embellishment thematics in the oboe that have a largo-esque Eastern quality. The lyrical deliberateness rings well in your ears.

It is a program of unexpected synergies, a fragile beauty and sensibility that takes it out of our time and places it somewhere in an unknown exotic locale at a time unknown. It is for that a very pleasurable listen, both accomplished and very down-to-earth.

Recommended. A singular addition of one for your collection...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lyatoshynsky, Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra, Kuchar

The fate of modern Ukrainian composers during the Soviet period varied with shifting political-ideological agendas, as I understand it. There was a period of relative freedom of expression, followed by a social realist agenda under Stalin that took a dim view of anything not connected with ideological uplift, then the thaw for the decade when Krushchev was in power. As a result Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968), considered the father of Ukrainian modernist composers, had obstacles to surmount at times in the official acceptance of his music.

Naxos is happily reissuing a series of three CDs covering Lyatoshynsky's complete symphonies (1-5) that were originally issued on Marco Polo some time ago. The first, covering Symphony No. 1, I have not heard as yet, but the second and third volumes I will cover here in the next several days. Today, Volume Two, with Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 (Naxos 8.555579). Theodore Kuchar conducts the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra in some quite serviceable, even inspired readings of the two works, written in 1935-36 (rev. 1946) and 1951 (rev. 1954), respectively.

Lyatoshynsky in these two works comes through as more his own voice than derivative. He uses Ukrainian folk influences and a basic chromatic modernism along with a somewhat romantic expressivity in the works for a result that has a narrative symphonic quality, at times mysterious, other times opening up chromatic whirlwinds of unfolding variations and long-lined melodic forms.

I have listened to this disk quite a few times and must say I cannot seem to wrap myself around this music as yet. It is doubtless well put-together, quite emotive, orchestrationally dark with spots of luminosity, at times very "Ukrainian" sounding, which of course was his intent.

The performances are not lacking and there is much to intrigue. It is music of great dramatic clout when he fashions climaxes. But Lyatoshynsky in this period may require a long period of incubation in the listener before a clear grasp of his way becomes apparent. I found that to be the case with Shostakovich at certain periods, personally, so that says nothing about the composer. I need to listen more. In the meantime anyone with an interest in Eastern European modernist symphony would be well-served by hearing this music.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trio Mediaeval, Aquilonus

Music has wings to take us to other eras, when done right. The Scandinavian threesome Trio Mediaeval do this hauntingly on their 6th ECM New Series album Aquilonus (B0022155-02). It is a wide-ranging collection of polyphonic vocal music from medieval to modern times, all of which share a plaintive sort of archaicism of mystery and remoteness, as the North Wind for which the album is named.

Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Berit Opheim give us their lovely blend of voices plus discrete accompaniment at times from the hardanger fiddle, portable organ and melody chimes. The repertoire includes Icelandic medieval chant, 12th century Italian sacred music, and some fitting 15th-century English carols for Christmastide. The modern works blend in thoroughly because they are self-consciously backward looking, so that when we hear the works by Anders Jormin, William Brooks and Andrew Smith they flow smoothly into the program. A folkishness and a purity-in-simplicity comes through to set a mood in keeping with the season.

This is music devoid of the middle-ages potboilers one hears so often in typical anthologies. The vocals are truly haunting in a folk-early way, and the ECM acoustics heighten the experience and the semantic space between us and these aetherial sounds.

I find the music enchanting.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Haydn, The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, Jeno Jandó, Solo Piano Version

In the course of this blog I have had the opportunity to review not one, but now three versions of Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. There has been the version for string orchestra, for string quartet, and now the solo piano version performed by Jeno Jandó (Naxos 8.573313). Why I have jumped at the chance to review each time becomes increasingly clear to me. There is perhaps no more harrowing scene in the biblical literature of Christianity than this. Jesus hangs on the cross, in agony. He expresses himself seven times, ranging from the needful cry "I thirst" to the heartbreaking "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" There is perhaps nothing more disturbing and dark than that moment, duly revisited every year in the Christian calendar.

That Joseph Haydn was commissioned to write a work on these last words for performance on Good Friday was fortunate, in that in dealing with the expressive power of this scenario he was pushed to the edge of the classical style he so brilliantly espoused. There was no question, for him, about writing the sort of work he did so well. Instead there are nine slow movements in a row, mostly in the minor mode, allowing him to express in his very own classicist way the tragic last moments of Jesus on earth as human, his earthly death.

Haydn's Last Words and Mozart's musical depiction of Don Giovanni's descent to hell in the opera of that name press two of classicism's greatest composers to the limits of classicism. If you compare what they did musically to romantic and later periods, you see clearly that classicism put strictures on expression that romanticism and later modernism eased significantly. I am thinking of Faust's ride to hell in Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust and Penderecki's hell-like musical depiction of the entombment of Christ in his Utrenja. Both Berlioz and Penderecki were freed progressively from the restraints of classicism to much more emotively expressive and anxious music. The effects are that much more thoroughly overwhelming, perhaps, and yet going back to Haydn you appreciate the challenges he had remaining true to the feelings of the narrative he was depicting yet staying within the conventions of musical meaning that were a part of his times.

And so the Seven Last Words manage to say so much. They are as dark as any classical work, as expressive (though of course Haydn's sturm und drang symphonies pioneered a heightened expressivity in the period) as anything you might hear from the era. If you were to look to a more or less clear expression of meaning in the musical syntax of the era, here is where you would find it.

But in the end his innovations in form and the literal program he was depicting make sense in the great power of the music. It is here that you find Haydn at his most starkly sublime. And the solo piano version perhaps even more so has a starkness inherent in its unrelenting pianism, its voluntary limitation of sound color, its limitation of pitch range at times to the center of the keyboard, only to burst forward ever the more dramatically as the higher and lower note options come in calculatedly to express contrast in a dark landscape.

Jeno Jandó gives us a performance that does not attempt to wow us with bravura panache. Such a display would destroy the dark and somber aura that Haydn lays out for us so brilliantly. Jandó puts all the expressivity needed into the music and no more. This is the proper reading to my mind. It is in the restraint that the sorrow comes through all the more. That most certainly was Haydn's intent and it in part is what makes this work so haunting. And when the music calls for it the more agitated expressive passages stand out all the more clearly.

So bravo to Jeno Jandó for this moving version. Very recommended.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jacques Hétu, Complete Chamber Works for Strings

Jacques Hétu (1938-2010), a pupil of Dutilleux, Messiaen and Lukas Foss, spent a lifetime composing and teaching in Canada. We come upon his music today in a most rewarding anthology of his Complete Chamber Music for Strings (Naxos 8.573395), as played by the New Orford String Quartet and guests.

This is serious, abstract modernist music of excellence, composed over much of his career between 1960 and 2004. The String Quartets No. 1 (1973) and No. 2 (1991) begin the program. They move out of the rarified, masterful territory of Bartok, Carter and Ligeti to occupy their own aural space. They alone are worth the price of admission, for they are significant and something to behold-hear. The string writing calls for virtuosity and passion and the New Orford Quartet realize it all with precision, grace and feeling.

By 2004 Hétu had become a bit less atonal but no less impactful as we hear from the lovely "Sextet, Op. 71," a work both pleasingly stringent and lyrical. In between we get shorter works that show both the hand of a master in the making and that of the made on the "Adagio and Rondo" from 1960, the "Scherzo" of 1992 and the haunting "Serenade" for string quartet and flute of 1988. The latter has an almost Bergsian depth of passion. It reminds me ever so slightly in the opening section of Berg's wonderful "Violin Concerto" yet does so strictly on its own terms.

At no point does inspiration flag. This is music we who have a commitment to the modern and the new should know, a disk we should have. The performances are no less effective than the music Hétu constructs so impressively.

Modernists take note. Jacques Hétu deserves your attention. You can hear the evolution of his style over his career on this program, and you like me will no doubt appreciate the various phases and want to hear more.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mary Dullea, Gothic, New Piano Music From Ireland

If we in the US have not heard very much from Irish contemporary composers, it is not because there is not much happening. The Irish are a most music of peoples, of course, and it stands to reason that we have been deprived for non-musical reasons. All that is moot with the new album by Mary Dullea: Gothic: New Piano Music From Ireland (Metier 28549). Ms. Dullea shows that she is an excellent exponent of new music performance in this sparkling anthology of seven works by some of Ireland's finest.

The music tends to be dramatic, gestural, filled with light and shadow, sound and silence. The music has the sort of ambience, much of the time, that George Crumb brought to prominence in some of his landmark solo piano works. The works here do not copy Crumb but step ahead with the same sensitivity to in-and-outside the piano color fields, dampening of strings, strumming and plucking strings, the use of space.

All the works have a singular feel to them, modern in a colorist's conception more so than much of the the wide skips and beyond-tonality of classic high modernism, even though some are harmonically-tonally edgy. Mary Dullea is in command and brings us performances that give us the music in its full mystery and vibrant narrative, sometimes torrential but always lucidly new.

These may be composers whose names you do not know (though some you might) but each has something worthwhile to say. The program consists of Ed Bennett and "Gothic," David Fennessy and "the first thing, the last thing and everything in between," Jonathan Nangle and "grow quieter gradually," Frank Lyons and "Tease," John McLachlan and "Nine," Grainne Mulvey and "Etude" and finally Benjamin Dwyer and "Homenaje a Maurice Ohana."

The music puts you firmly in the present without any sort of dilution. This is serious piano music and it is played with a touch of the magic that Mary Dullea has no shortage of....She is transcendent, powerful and tender all at once.

Very highly recommended.

It turns out I have jumped the gun posting here. Copies will be available February 10th, 2015. Keep a note of the date; you will no doubt want to order it when it’s released.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Captain Tobias Hume, "Harke, harke!" Lyra Violls Humors & Delights, Guido Balestracci

The fate of the outsider artist over time depends as much on fate as well as talent. In music for every Moondog or Harry Partch, there may be other talented composers outside of the mainstream whose music remains undiscovered, in time as much a factor of chance rediscovery entering into the picture as not.

Such a figure up until now has been Captain Tobias Hume (1549-1645), an English sea captain who as a sort of hobby composed and played music for the lyra viol, a six-stringed member of the viola da gamba family, roughly cello-like in size but with a more resonant tone and a wider range. He was a music natural, not formally trained in the academic art of music in any conventional sense. Two collections of his music were published in London in 1605. By the time of his 1645 death in circumstances of poverty he was already all-but-forgotten.

Guido Balestracci, Les Basses Reunies and Bruno Cocset have turned to those publications and made a nice selection from them in their album dedicated to his hitherto unknown music "Harke! harke!" Lyra Violls Humors & Delights (Alpha 197).

Maestro Balestracci plays the solo lyra viol part, at times unaccompanied, other times with a viol consort of Bruno Cocset on the dessus viol or a second lyra viol, Richard Myron on the consort bass, and, as needed, Bertrand Cuiller on the clavecin.

The sound of the violls are inimitable, rich and complexly reverberant. Hume wrote the viol parts in tablature, which means that the fingering positions are shown clearly for every note, but the tuning of the instruments, apparently according to practices of the time, are left to the players. The present recordings give us likely tuning choices and they give the players stops and open notes sounding very different to the present-day violin family. There are some very folk-like elements in the music, as well as a general jauntiness, skilfully done but not as subject to the rules of counterpoint and compositional practices of the day. The tunefulness and craftsmanship of the 25 brief works heard on this album are not to be denied. The combination of exceptional timbre and compositional inspiration make for very pleasurable listening.

Pieces are sometimes articulated pizzicato and give forth with uncanny sounds. But the bowed works no less so.

Balestracci, Cocset and Les Basses Reunies give us beautiful, idiomatically exotic readings of the works that make the Captain come alive for us once again, at least musically. It is a triumph of early music reconstruction that anyone who already knows and loves viol consort music will appreciate, but so will those who know nothing about the style and timbres. It's the sort of disk to play for a friend who thinks he or she knows early baroque music and how it sounds!

Highly recommended.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Simeon Ten Holt, Canto Ostinato XXL, Jeroen van Veen & Friends, Four-CD Version

Minimalism has had its ups and downs in our era. But if you think you know all there is to know about it, as I occasionally do (wrongly), there is something that will change your mind. I found an experience like that when I recently was sent the 4-CD version of Canto Ostinato XXL, a composition by Simeon Ten Holt (1927-2012). This version is played by four grand pianos and a full cathedral pipe organ, by Jeroen van Veen and Friends (Brilliant 94990 4-CDs). The work was written between 1976 and 1979, for four keyboards, give or take. There have been a number of recordings, from what I understand. This is by far the longest version, running well over four hours. Though I have not heard the other recordings I certainly can vouch for this one. Its lengthy playing time may make it difficult to hear in one sitting but that is no matter, at least to me. You lose nothing by dividing the hearing up into segments.

Fact is, it is a very beautiful work in the hands of van Veen and company. This is apparently the first version to bring in organ with four pianos and the results are excellent. 106 individual sections can be played for any length of time as desired. Each section generally contains a two-bar ostinato diatonic figure foundation in 5/4 and there are melodic thematic elements that can and do appear overtop the ostinato. There are segues that appear only once as transitional bridges. Some choice is given the performers on what to play and what to leave out and other parts can be added as seen as fitting by the players for their given version.

I am not entirely clear in my head how all that works but the hearing of this version lays it all out so that it doesn't matter. What you get is a beautiful work that has trance elements as well as melodic figures that are far from banal. In that sense there is a Riley-Reichian mesmerizing flow as well as the Glassian melodism. But really this sounds like neither, for Simeon Ten Holt goes his very own way. There are passages of such beauty that you feel like this might have been the minimalism you would hear if Chopin were alive today. But even that does not do justice to what occurs in the music.

The organ appears dramatically and selectively at key points in the work. Much of the time it is the four pianos alone. That only makes the organ's presence all the more special when it appears.

It is a work that needs to be heard by anyone attracted to minimalist structure. I would be so bold to say it is one of the masterpieces of the first minimal period, though I have never heard it prior to this set. The version is quite ravishing, with Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen, Marcel Bergman and Elizabeth Bergman resplendent for the piano parts; Aart Bergwerff very effective on organ.

I can't imagine a better performance, though no doubt there could be ones that sound different given the leeway the composer builds into the work. At the Brilliant budget price the 4-CDs come to you without breaking the bank and time goes surprisingly quickly when you hear this performance.

I must say the music moves me very much. No minimalist collection is complete without it, I would say. Very stunning work.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tristan Perich, Surface Image, Vicky Chow

Classic minimalism continues to be with us in various guises. Today we encounter composer Tristan Perich and his hour-long work Surface Image (New Amsterdam 060). It is written for solo piano and 40-channel one-bit electronics. What makes an electronic part "one-bit?" Apparently it is electronic music that never has more than one-bit of information for each part at any time during its execution. So that means the 40-part electronic portion of this work consists of 40 single lines.

Surface Images sounds exactly that way in its electronic score. It is a 40-"instrument" blanket of articulated repetitions that play against a challenging piano part played with great facility here by Vicky Chow. This is music that through gradually changing repetitions gives us a sort of trance effect, as classical minimalism tends to do.

The piece begins with rapid figurations that repeat and evolve at a steady pace for the first 20 minutes, then increase in speed for another 10 minutes, entering into ultra-rapid figurations 30 minutes into the work. The music slows again in steps over the last part of the piece, leaving the listener in the end with a less dense, more introspective wash of sound. Then it is gone.

Vicky Chow literally has her hands full executing the continuous part and she responds with a marvelous performance that is precisely what it should be--mesmerising and rhythmically precise but also expressive.

Those who love the total, tonal trance environment of early instrumental Reich, Riley and such will find this a new wrinkle on "traditional" ground. It is pleasing and never banal, fairly dense and ever-shifting.

If minimalism leaves you flat you will not appreciate this, I suspect. All the rest of us have something quite appealing and intriguing to hear. Bravo to Ms. Chow. And bravo to Tristan Perich.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Julian Sartorius, Zatter

Julian Sartorius, avant drummer-percussionist, embarks on his second solo adventure with the album Zatter (Intakt). I have yet to hear his first, Beat Diary, which consists of 365 pieces covering a full year of sound art. He has played with various Euro-improvisational new jazz groups including the trio of Colin Vallon as well as Co Streiff & Russ Johnson's quartet.

Zatter consists of 14 improvised entities that end up sounding more in the realm of new music than percussion in the rhythmic or jazz-oriented sense. According to Sartorius, "Zatter" means in old German "the disorder when things are strewn all around." That perhaps is ironic because each piece has a fairly clear sonic palette, each unto its own. Nothing is overdubbed or involves the use of electronics. In all Sartorius in the course of the album produces sound complexes from various combinations of drums, cymbals, spanish goat-bells, gongs, vibrators, rubber balls, sound bowls, bull-roarer, shruti box, lumbers, glockenspiel, kalimbas, tubes, mbira, and metals.

Things can have a periodicity but few have anything overtly drummer-percussionist-rhythmic about them. The few that do have greater interest to my ears. He is highly inventive and each piece has such a way about it that often one spends time contemplating how he made the sounds. Sometimes it seems as if bowing is involved; other times there is an ambient sort of vibratory feedback sound that gives one a feeling of being in an electronic zone.

Ultimately this is a credit to Sartorius and his ingenuity. It fascinates but ultimately does not hang together so much as music as it does percussive experiment. That is something in itself. Those with a very adventurous soul will probably respond. Others may not.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

John Cage, Sonatas and Interludes, In A Landscape, Kate Boyd

I don't think there is any question that with composer John Cage his most popular and best-loved composition is the "Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano." It is a rather early work (1946-48) and it has an ambience and inner explorative sense that was unprecedented at the time, save (now that we have hindsight) for some of Erik Satie's piano music. The music has given many listeners lots of joy, as far and above a favorite among those who may not otherwise know Cage well. The "silent" piano piece may be more notorious, but it not surprisingly is not heard, pardon the pun, often. In fact it is not heard at all, which of course is the point.

There have been quite a number of recordings of the sonatas over the years. Now we have a new one by pianist Kate Boyd, programming the Sonatas and Interludes with In A Landscape (Navona 5984). Most people know that preparing a piano involves placing a wide variety of objects on or between piano strings, so that the sound takes on a very "other" quality. Cage invented the process and much of his work in the vein was intended initially as music for the dance companies he worked with.

The prepared piano sounds well enough like a percussion orchestra more than a piano per se. Many if not most of the recordings of the "Sonatas and Interludes" treat the music as if it were percussively rhythmic, which if course it is. Kate Boyd's new recording has that quality, but it also has a very pianistic approach, more so than any of the many recordings I've heard over the years.

And that is what makes this version stand out. It has as a result perhaps a more Asian or mysterious quality of, say, traditional solo string music from Japan or China. As a result the music sounds less like it is a Western analog of gamelan music from Java or Bali.

Kate Boyd gives us some rubato, some sensitive pianistic phrasings and dynamics, and much in the way of nuance that put the music more squarely in our heads as PIANO music. In the closing of the program we are treated to a bonus-encore of another Cage piano work from the same era (this one unprepared), "In A Landscape." She gives us a warmly poetic, pianistic reading of this work as well.

I believe anyone serious about 20th century modern music needs to have a recording of the "Sonatas and Interludes" in her or his collection. Ideally one might have two, one for a more percussive interpretation and then this one by Kate Boyd.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gordon Fitzell, Magister Ludi

Every new modern composer you encounter forces you to start from the beginning, to blank the mind of expectations and let yourself open to what will come. Canadian composer Gordon Fitzell and his five-work album Magister Ludi (Centrediscs 20414) filled in the blank slate with some excellent high-modernist chamber music. The Ensemble contemporain de Montreal (ECM+) under Veronique Lacroix handle the performances with exceptional verve and creativity and the recording has first-rate presence.

Fitzell has come up with a notation system that structures the music yet allows the players improvisational latitude. From all aural appearances this is a fortuitous circumstance as the ECM+ rise to the occasion with music of considerable interest.

The five works performed on the CD cover a fair amount of time (from 2000 to 2014) yet go together quite seamlessly. "Pangea Ultima" has passages that show an affinity with avant jazz improv. (And the presence of Francis Houle, as well-respected avant improvisor, has some effect on that.) The bulk of the music has a distinctive spatial sprawl and fully high modernist abstraction. It does not suggest Darmstadtian serialism as much as it fits in with the more open-formed sounds that came after.

And so the hour-long program that includes the title work "Magister Ludi" (named after Hesse's provoking "Glass Bead Game" novel, for flute octet plus cello), "violence," "Flux" and "evanescence," the latter of which combines the ensemble with an electronics score, give us much to appreciate and contemplate.

This is serious, abstract, well-crafted modern chamber music in the grand avant tradition. The sound colors are vivid and the music excellently paced. Based on the recording Gordon Fitzell establishes his sound. He is a contender among the new, advanced style composers for the pantheon of most worthy Millennialists, I would say. Time will tell. In the meantime hear this album by all means. ECM+ sounds brilliant and the music no less so.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pawel Mykietyn, My Piano, Anna Stempin-Jasnowska

When something could be said to be post-modern, it often means it is multi-stranded stylistically. The original definition of the category assumes this. The music of Polish composer Pawel Mykietyn (b. 1971) fits this definition admirably, as heard on the four-work release My Piano (Accord 194-2).

Through the program pianist Anna Stempin-Jasnowska is the focus and she is a poetic and interpretive cornerstone of the Mykietyn approach to the instrument. She belongs together with this music.

Altogether we get a vivid impression of the composer in the period from 1992 through 2000. The works show us a basically tonal but presentationally modern sound with an impressive variety of syntax, from neo-classical allusions combined with dramatic electronics on "Epiphora," to dramatic pointillism on his "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" that gradually obtains a complex piano-orchestra mass of very moving motility before quieting to a tender introspection in the second movement, then going on to a blaze of modulatory brittleness and restless grandeur in the final movement. A beautiful work it is, eclectic yet so in a very personal way.

The "Four Preludes" show at times a flirtation with minimalism (also heard in "Epifora") which turns more to a quotation than a way of composing. The music refuses to sit still yet has a logical expression inherent in its eventfulness. There is a romantic element but it is not typically backward looking as it is used as a springboard for Mykietyn's own sort of grand gestures. And his own sort of expressionist dramatics come to the fore in ways quite exciting.

The "Shakespeare's Sonnets" give us through-composed complexities that again have multi-stylistic components including some intervallic leaps that segue nicely to the Concerto that follows.

Ms. Stempin-Jasnowska is ever a beacon of light in this music. Soprano Agata Zubel and the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Szymon Bywalec sound very appropriate and effective.

In short this program satisfies with music that is original, tonal yet thoroughly contemporary, dramatic, movingly presented. The piano writing has an unforgettable singularity. The music as a whole strikes me as rather outstanding. Now I would like to hear more by Pawel Mykietyn. This program will I suspect do the same for you if you seek the promise of the beyond yet revel in music of an advanced tonality.

Mykietyn makes a difference by daring to be different.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1 "Classical", Symphony No. 2, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

Prokofiev's seven symphonies are a body of work that continues to enjoy favor among the world's contemporary classical listeners. There is good reason for it. His symphonies are filled with melodic vividness, spirit and tenderness, turbulence and great orchestral writing in general. I've listened to them for years, never growing tired of them.

Conductor Marin Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra are in the process of recording the entire cycle for Naxos. This blog has covered the first two installments (type "Prokofiev" in the search box above for reviews of those) and now they give us a third.

This volume very sensibly pairs Symphony No. 1 "Classical" with his Symphony No. 2 (Naxos 8.573353) and also adds the very worthwhile bonus of an earlier orchestral movement, "Dreams, op. 6" from 1910. In the LP days pairing the first and seventh was common enough, but then you don't get the huge contrast between One and Two, the radical leap forward and stridency of the Second compared with the lyric charms of the First.

So I like the sequence. It gives you two Prokofievs side-by-side, the modern classicist and the avant innovator, and makes for an interesting listening experience.

Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony give us very spirited readings of the works, more spirited than some of the old LP versions I still have, but perhaps with slightly less precise focus than the old workhorse versions. It's a tradeoff. In the end the dynamic excitement wins one over.

The "Classical" Symphony in Alsop's hands gets boisterous as needed. She has an excellent understanding of the motor-propulsion that Prokofiev put across at his best, along with the lyrical bittersweetness. The orchestra responds with enthusiasm.

The Second has a good deal more of the modernist side of the composer, with greatly dynamic clashes between brass and strings and a brittle initial lyricism in the theme and variations movements that gives way to moments of exciting turbulence, only to return again to an agitated lyric calm. Again there is a sense of balance that brings out the coherency of the music as Prokofiev no doubt intended.

The ten-minute "Dreams" is a beautiful find. It gives you another take on Prokofiev's early period with a work that is far beyond the level of an immature composer. Prokofiev comes through as fully expressive but perhaps less himself than what followed. I am very glad to have it. It stands up as worthy music in every sense, even if perhaps it is a touch Scriabinesque.

Once again Alsop gives us readings that are not perfect, perhaps, but very strong and true to the music. These are versions you can live with and enjoy repeatedly, that have great excitement and charm. The Sao Paulo Symphony come through again. And you cannot beat the Naxos price.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Galina Ustvolskaya, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Markus Hinterhäuser, Reto Bieri

Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) is new to me. An album of her chamber music came out in the last few months (ECM New Series 2329 4810883) and I have been captivated with it. Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Markus Hinterhäuser (piano) and Reto Bieri (clarinet) present three of her works with great deliberation (something her music most surely demands) and sympathy.

Ustvolskaya studied with Shostakovich but does not especially sound like him, except perhaps for a certain severity that Shostakovich could show at times in his smaller ensemble music. Otherwise Ustvolskaya sounds quite original, more intervallically and harmonically modern than not, especially as she progresses to later works. There is a rhythmic insistence throughout and a kind of presentational clarity untypical of composers of her era.

The three works are her "Sonata for Violin and Piano" (1952), the "Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano" (1949) and the "Duet for Violin and Piano" (1964). The last work is the most demanding technically. It is filled with clusters and chromatic leaps, laid out matter-of-factly in syntactically definite phrases that can repeat or vary but remain foregrounded with hard-edged definition.

The earlier works are also austere and periodically phrased. There are occasional thematic tattoos in a kind of deliberate Morse Code, and intervallically defined motion. I sometimes hear a bi-tonality so that even diatonic movement is made more tonally decentered.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja gives us sometimes starkly ferocious, sternly dramatic readings that are amplified and seconded by Markus Hinterhäuser and Reto Bieri. The performances seem just right. I must say that the music as presented here has a dynamic and dark presence more like a winter landscape than a promise of spring. Is the music bitter? It is most definitely not sweet. It is not cheerful. There is abstraction enough though that one does not find oneself searching for the music's meaning. The meaning is itself, the notes and the sequence.

The recording may be somewhat demanding but important modern music can be that way. If you open up to Ustvolskaya she delivers her powerful art in ways that take you to the center of her music. And that is a good place to be.

Ustvolskaya needs to be heard, judging from this dramatic sample of her work. It is a recording of importance, a bit of a milestone on the current modern music scene. Do not hesitate if you look for something new under the sun. You will be moved, I'll bet.