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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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Modern Times, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Karl-Heinz Steffens

Some of the high modernists from last century have basked in relative obscurity since their deaths. One who should be more widely heard is Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970). His music has excellent craftsmanship and inspiration. He was notable in his incorporation of modern jazz into his music. He is most remembered for the opera Die Soldaten, but there is much in addition to appreciate.

A good start with that is available in a new anthology of his orchestral works, Modern Times (Capriccio 5213). The Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Karl-Heinz Steffens cover four works here, written between 1927 and 1968, and a fine job they do with the scores. The liners make note of Zimmermann as a kind of outsider, in that he was never an integral member of the Darmstadt School of Boulez and company or any other group of composers, but instead went his own way. This may in part account for his relative obscurity, but his music puts him at the forefront in terms of its bold daring and its original stance.

The four works represented on this CD are not well known but fully worth hearing. They include the five-movement ballet "Alagoana: Capriches Brasileiros" written sometime in the 1940s, the "Sinfonie in einem Satz" composed between 1947 and 1953, a later work, "Photoptosis," from 1968, and the earlier 1927 opus "Stille und Umkehr".

These works generally give us a very extroverted, full, rich sound that has symphonic impact and generally none of the pointillism of Webern and the Darmstadt School. In this way he approaches the orchestra more typically in sections, which comes out of the heritage of romanticism. The melodic-harmonic thrust is altogether high modernist, however, at the edges of tonality and on to the more atonal end of modern compositional syntax. Yet he is more overtly expressionist than many of his contemporaries.

It is music of complexity and drama, something of real worth. The open modernist listener will likely revel in this music as I did. It is not music that can be fully grasped in a single listen, understandably. Zimmermann captures some of the turmoil of the century with an excellent sense of the orchestral forces available to him.

Very recommended.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gian Francesco Malipiero, Fantasie di ogni giorno, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, La Vecchia

Naxos has been putting out a sizable amount of music by Malipiero (1882-1973) and that turns out to be a good thing. I missed his music for the most part earlier and am now trying to catch up. The current volume covers orchestral works from the middle and earlier period, in a program named after the centerpiece work, Fantasie di ogni giorno (Naxos 8.573291).

Francesco La Vecchia conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma throughout. The music and performers seem well-suited to each other, as the renditions are spirited and dynamic.

This is less the ultra-modernist composer of the later period but nevertheless shows Malipiero as expressive and appealing. The liners make note of a "tipping point" in his stylistic development in 1952, when increasingly chromaticism and eventually 12-tone structures come to replace a diatonicism. We can hear the initial later period in the first two works on the program, the "Fantasie di ogni giorno (Everyday Fantasies)" from 1953 and the "Passacaglie" from 1952. Rounding out the program is a nine movement "Concerti" from 1931. The latter two compositions enjoy their world premiere recordings here.

Yet even the earlier period's diatonicism sounds in no way backward looking. All have a contemporary quality. The "Concerti" show a great deal of lyrical sound color and drama as each movement for the most part features concerted music for various sections of the orchestra.

The "Fantasie" according to the composer was a series of ideas he was working on, almost like a musical diary, that he decided to present as a whole. They show no traces of not belonging together, however, so perhaps there was more of a unity of purpose than he himself was aware of consciously in the first stages of writing. It is a work of great interest.

The "Passacaglie" like the "Fantasie" documents the beginnings of Malipiero's increasingly expanded tonal sense. It is a dramatic work filled with no small amount of sturm und drang.

That Malipiero composed over such a long period, covering nearly the entire first three quarters of the 20th century, means there is a great deal to hear and that development went in tandem with the longevity. The three compositions offered in the current program give you a taste of just how much there is to appreciate. This may not be (if there is one) the single disk of Malipiero's orchestral works to get. You need some of the later music, too. But it certainly brings us more and very pleasing evidence that his music is central to an understanding of the rise of modernism in 20th century Italy.


Monday, November 3, 2014

André Riotte, Météorite et ses métamorphoses, Thérèse Malengreau

Who was it that said "the past isn't even past?" It is no more true than with classical music today. All the masterworks and many minor works from the Middle Ages through today vie for our attention, on recordings and in concert halls. Modern music in all its stylistic incarnations is present and must be selected from. New music comes out daily in ever accumulating stacks. How do we choose? It depends in part on how much time you have available for listening, but even then all of it cannot be heard. So it depends on what you like. I like all styles, pretty much, so I cover them here. You may be more concerned with one or two subcategories. I try and sort them through for you and note the gems.

So when a new name comes along for me, today it is André Riotte (1928-2011), I answer the call to ears with both resignation and with anticipation. Resignation because I cannot deal with all composers, anticipation because I hope the experience will be illuminating and worthwhile. We have today a disk of Riotte's solo piano compositions, Météorite et ses métamorphoses (Grand Piano 679), played well by Thérèse Malengreau.

The music consists of 33 short pieces that work together. They come out of his exploration of the techniques of Messiaen and Barraque and make use of an “all-interval series” which the liners define as "a series which conforms to the dual constraint of including once and once only both the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale and the eleven intervals between them."

Riotte gives us music on the very edges of tonality and, to our ears, beyond. The rhythmic structures are for the most part quite simple but the harmonic-melodic sequences are anything but. Metamorphoses for Riotte are like variations, except the reference to an original theme is not readily apparent to the listener.

Homophony, polyphony and apparently polyrhythmic sequences occur in varying combinations. The music is ear opening and will most certainly appeal to the high-modernist audiophile. They stretch your ears and give pleasure in the process.

Recommended for those who travel where none have gone before (that is, before last century)!