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Friday, August 18, 2017

J.S. Bach, Inventions & Sinfonias, Karin Kei Nagano


Who "owns" Western Civilization? The answer is everybody. For the classical music canon, for example, anyone is encouraged to listen, anyone to perform, anyone to devote a life to it or just let it ornament their existence. That J.S.Bach is German is a fact. Germans look to him with pride, yet he belongs to the entire world. It is true in the end of all music.

That L.A. born pianist Karin Kei Nagano chooses to perform Bach's Inventions & Sinfonias (Analekta 2-8771) is wholly a part of the picture. She is a very talented artist, completely steeped in classical tradition and performance practices and yet she also gives us crisply poetic interpretive versions of these masterworks that inject her very own sensibility. This is how it should be.

If in my opening lines if I say the obvious it is only with a righteous indignation because of what local White Supremacists have been doing: attempting to hijack the world's cultural heritage to serve their own evil agenda. (Among other unspeakable things.) It will not stand.

So as it happens Bach's Inventions & Sinfonias (BWV 772-801) are gems of the highest order. Yet Bach simply wrote them for his family and students as a pedagogical device to enable them to gain fluency on the keyboard. In the process he created a set of contrapuntal works that mark his genius as surely as anything he ever wrote.

If you took classical piano lessons the chances are good that you learned them. If you did or did not matters little in the end, since Ms. Nagano plays them all with great interpretive sensitivity so that they all sing out in all their glory. She does not generally take things at a maddening clip. Instead she seeks to bring out each part with clarity and poetic poise.

Wonderful versions of wonderful music. Time and identity virtually cease to exist when listening.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stephen Dodgson, 24 Inventions for Harpsichord, Ekaterina Likhina

Nearly every day lately I am surprised to hear something unknown and unexpected. Today's classical-modern selection clocks in and it's another I never might have known were it not for the CD playing now on my player. I speak of the World Premiere Recording of something by Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013). Namely we have Ekaterina Likhina playing Dodgson's 24 Inventions for Harpsichord (Naxos 9.70262).

Here is a modern English composer of obvious caliber. He presented a first set of inventions in 1955, when he was only 21 years old.  Three more sets followed through 1990. All four sets of inventions comprise the full 24 performed here. The short pieces all have a Scarlatti-like rhythmic drive, expressiveness, and compact incisiveness, thriving within a chromatic-diatonic realm one might call neo-classical without doing the music an injustice, although the composer himself might have had something to say about that category. It is another old-in-the-new set of works, with an obvious nod to earlier inventions but a 20th century modern outlook at base.

Stephen's widow has been on hand, happily, to guide Ekaterina Likhina on tempo, notation and character. The resulting performances sound to me definitive. Liners say that these Inventions are among the most important works for harpsichord in our times. Based on the more well known modern works I have heard repeatedly I would have to say that these compare most favorably.

There is much excellent music to absorb. The complexities and inventive detail in these works demand multiple and unsuperficial hearings to grasp fully. It is worth the trouble, since in the end there is a great deal to like!






Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Frederico Moreno Torroba, Guitar Concertos 2

Last February 13, 2016 I reviewed on these pages the first volume of Torroba (1891-1982) Guitar Concertos featuring guitarists Pepe Romero and Vincente Coves, with the Malaga Philharmonic under Manuel Coves. We now contemplate the second volume (Naxos 8.573503), with all the same save the appearance of the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra.

For the second outing Pepe Romero handles the solo duties on "Homenaje a la seguidilla" (1962) and the "Tonada concertante" (1975-80). Vicente Coves takes over for the "Concierto de Castilla" (1960).

Romero's pupil Vincente Coves plays as beautifully as his mentor. The Extremadura Orchestra sounds every bit as idiomatic and vibrant as one would hope for in this music.

The music is captivating, with Castilian-Spanish folk elements vying with a kind of neo-impressionist shimmer and lyricism. The solo guitar parts have bravura and introspection at the forefront alternatingly.

The three works that comprise Volume 2 of Torroba's Guitar Concerto outing continue the wonderful fare and make for a beautiful listen. I heartily recommend it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mark John McEncroe, Symphonic Suites 1 & 2, A Medieval Saga

Living Australian composer Mark John McEncroe came to composing relatively late, spending his 20s and 30s as music label manager for EMI Australia and then EMI Sweden. He returned to Australia and began in earnest piano studies, clarinet studies and eventually theory and composition, the latter with Margaret Brandman from 2003 to 2012. He began composing a number of symphonic poems with orchestration help from Mark Salibus, with whom he continues to study.

Earlier this year Parma Records released a recording of Mark John McEncroe's "Natalie's Suite" for orchestra along with several solo piano works. The present release continues the relationship with a two-CD recording of the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armore performing McEncroe's Symphonic Suites 1 & 2: A Medieval Saga (Navona 6116). The orchestration is handled deftly by McEncroe's mentor Mark Salibus.

There is a series of thematically intertwined continuities that serves to unify both suites into a cohesive whole. The two suites musically depict a story of Middle Age political upheaval and its aftermath.

What strikes me most on hearing and rehearing the lengthy two-part work is the way the sprawling unfolding of the score in a consistently minor mode serves to put this music into a kind of timeless world zone. It has a sort of mysterious east-meets-west aura about it. Indeed, its minor ornamental continuity reminds me a little of some of Hovhaness's more Armenian tinged works, only with less focus on a specific region or time and perhaps more of an alternate contemporary-in-archaic mode that straddles a wider set of allusions.

One is left with a singular impression of a kind of organicized stylistic unity and flow that places the music outside of time yet also anchors itself fully in a post-modern kind of present. It transcends a typical pomo vision by unfolding more according to modal-flowing, flowering lines that allude to early music melodic expression without actually quoting or directly assimilating it.

I am left with an impression of something complete unto itself yet rather thoroughly outside contemporary modern music currents. It virtually stands apart from any modern mainstream realms yet in the end reflects our times as through a lens into the past.

Something entirely different, this is. Any adventurous soul may well readily take to this music as I have. Happily recommended.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Johann Mattheson, 12 Suites for Harpsichord, Gilbert Rowland

Of masterful baroque composers there are seemingly more than a few who for whatever turn of fate we have nigh well forgotten. Today we have an instructive example in Johann Mattheson (1681-1764). We get a solid look at his music for solo keys in his 1714 opus 12 Suites for Harpsichord (Athene 23301 3-CD set) as spiritedly and authentically realized by Gilbert Rowland.

The liner notes for this release tell us that he lived in Handel's time and indeed was a friend of his. He composed, played organ, wrote, danced, fenced and was multilingual. His friendship with Handel suffered a setback when they fought a duel over Handel's involvement in a performance of Mattheson's opera "Cleopatra." Happily no one was hurt and their friendship resumed.

His operatic career as singer ended when he became the secretary for the English Ambassador in 1705. By 1715 he was Music Director at Hamburg Cathedral. Increasing deafness forced him to give up that position in 1728. He composed numerous choral works during that time, but tragically much of his music has been lost to us during the bombings of WWII. The liners reassure us that the opera "Cleopatra" survives along with a good deal of instrumental works, one of which of course is the "12 Suites" that forms the whole of the current release.

The suites combine homophonic and contrapuntal elements, and are made up of dance music and pure movements that serve to introduce and connect the whole of each suite. In that they were like Handel and Bach's forays into this mode, but also you can hear at times a French element, a similarity to Rameau in the briskly kinetic but lyrical effusions.

The "12 Suites" establish for us Mattheson's idiomatic immersion in the baroque of his time but also a definite originality.

The music comes alive thanks to Gilbert Rowland's apposite and enthusiastic performances. The set will appeal to anyone who revels in baroque harpsichord. Mattheson may be tragically obscure these days but he is undeservedly so. The "Suites" give you many reasons to listen and enjoy. Take the plunge on this one, should you be so inclined. I do not think you will be disappointed. I for one am glad to hear and in the future re-hear these unknown gems!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Karol Szymanowski, Piano Music, Barbara Karaskiewicz

Arthur Rubenstein did more to introduce Western audiences to the piano music of Poland's brilliant composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) than anyone alive in the 20th century. If today his music is not as frequently performed as it might be, the masterful quality and expressivity of the oeuvre as a whole demands a serious immersion in the best of it if we are to understand the 20th century musical strengths and poetics of Eastern European classical-modernism.

Barbara Karaskiewicz combines virtuosity and interpretive acuity to be a near ideal exponent of a series of breathtaking Szymanowski works in her volume of his Piano Music (Divine Art 25151) that has recently become available.

What makes this album especially attractive is its intelligent mix of early and later works. The "Nine Preludes, Op. 1" and the "Four Etudes, Op. 4" are followed by the later "Masques, Op. 34" and the "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62."

The earlier music has something of the late romantic virtuoso brilliance that so overtook the musical sensibilities of 19th century piano music via Chopin and Liszt. Even then though the Szymanowski "Preludes" and "Etudes" included here have a distinctively original individuality and a zeitgeist reflecting the winds of change blowing transformatively over Europe and the music of the era.

By the time the composer completed his "Masques, Op. 34" and his "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62" there is a distinct movement toward a 20th century modernism conjoined with his ever-prevailing rhapsodistic and poetic demeanor.

The early and later phases of Szymanowski's piano music as we hear them on this album are not a matter of  a contrast between tentative student works and mature mastery. There is a stylistic shift to be followed, surely, but the whole of this music shows a full command over pianistic resources and an highly inventive originality that sings out from first to last.

Ms. Karaskiewicz puts a sense of clarity and passion into each movement, a genuinely sympathetic lyrical and dramatic touch that is so needed for a vital interpretation of this most expressive composer.

The end result is a very happy meeting of pianist and composer. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a better single CD that brings to us all that makes Szymanowski's piano music important and movingly alive. Here is a great place to start if you want to know why the composer is a central figure in the Polish early modern period. The selection and performances are equally rewarding to one who already knows something of the music. Barbara Karaskiewicz puts it all before us in glowing terms. Do not hesitate to grab a copy of this album!


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Music from SEAMUS, Vol. 1, The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States

Electro-acoustic music, in its "electronic music" and "musique concrete" incarnations, was one of New Music's most potent and advanced gestures from the '50s through the '70s. There were even best selling albums such as Walter (Wendy) Carlos' Switched on Bach. And then, almost as quickly, Electronic Music went out of fashion for a time, Nevertheless the Millennium and beyond has brought a resurgence. Music from SEAMUS (EAM-9301) documents the electronic pre-Renaissance, in a first volume of works released under the auspices of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. It covers the period between 1980 and 1991, a somewhat dark time for the reception of such music but as we hear on this volume, a time when excellent work was still being produced.

The six compositions on the anthology give us a window on some state-of-the-art developments. Four works feature conventional instruments (and voice in one example) and processed and/or synthesized electric sounds. Two are works for electro-acoustic forces alone.

The stylistic parameters fall rather squarely into a high modernist and beyond sound color and open-form expansive orientation. On the works for instruments and electroacoustics there is a consistent attempt to extend the scope of acoustical instruments with synergies between the two realms. The all-electroacoustic works develop aural landscapes of varying densities.

For your information, the following is a round up of the composers, works and configurations: James Mobberley opens the program with his "Spontaneous Combustion" (1991) for alto saxophone and computer generated accompaniment; it is followed by James Phelps and his "Chordlines" (1991) for computer-generated tape; next up is Anna Rubin and her "Remembering" (1989, rev. 1993) for soprano, piano and tape; then follows Stephen David Beck and "Improvisation on Strange Attractors v1.0b" (1990) for bassoon and Virtual Instrument Paradigm; Bernardo Feldman and his "Still Life" (1986) for tape follows; the concluding work is Kwok-ping John Chen's "Ring Shades" (1990) for solo percussion with two-channel tape.

What we experience on this volume are a series of works that deserve fully a hearing today. They should not bask in the obscurity that has been the fate of much electro-acoustic work towards the end of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the history of later New Music will find this enlightening. Anyone with open ears will find the hearing of it all pleasureable. Give it a listen, by all means.