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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Joaquin Rodrigo, Chamber Music with Violin, Eva Leon

The Spanish master composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) is universally known and admired for his "Concierto de Aranquez," most deservedly so. But during his long lifetime he wrote a good deal else, and we can be thankful to Naxos for releasing a good bit of it. Today we have the latest, Chamber Music with Violin (Naxos 8.572648), which showcases the extroverted Eva Leon on violin, in one unaccompanied solo work, one work for violin and guitar (Virginia Luque) and four works for violin and piano (Olga Vinokur). The  music covers a good span of Rodrigo's career, from 1923 to 1982.

Like "Aranquez," these pieces combine Rodrigo's strong melodic sensibilities with Spanish folk flavors and a sort of Spanish impressionist horizon, but they do so in ways more suited to the intimate chamber setting.

The works stand out in their own way as paradigmatic Rodrigo.

"Sonata pimpante" (1966) has a sparkling palette of cascading piano and exuberant violin in an unforgettable mix. "Set cancons valencianes" (1982) is steeped in Spanish folk roots with seven movements that captivate. The "Capriccio (Ofrenda a Sarasate)" (1944) has heroic unaccompanied fireworks unencumbered by the constraints of counterlines from chamber accompaniments.

The final three works continue the melodic evocations and folk strains, with guitar accompaniment on "Serenata al alba del dia" (1982); and a return to the piano as second instrument on the short but striking works "Dos esbozos" (1923) and "Rumaniana" (1943).

We are left after hearing this program with the distinct impression that Rodrigo was no one-trick pony, but rather a thorough craftsman and superb lyric Spanish voice throughout his career. These pieces are without fail miniature gems from a sure master of his own very original modern Spanish style.

Anyone who gravitates towards the "Spanish tinge" will find in this CD a delightful mix of memorable chamber sounds. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Berio Sinfonia, Mahler/Berio 10 Fruhe Lieder, Matthias Goerne, Synergy Vocals, BBC Symphony Josep Pons

Luciano Berio's "Sinfonia" was composed in 1968-69 to commemorate The New York Philharmonic Orchestra's 125th Anniversary. It was scored for the orchestra and eight amplified voices. The original version was in four movements and its first recording came out shortly after its premiere with the Swingle Singers and the  NY Philharmonic under the direction of Berio. This was the version I heard repeatedly and internalized. The vocalists spoke, shouted and sung, primarily quotations from Levi-Strauss' "The Raw and the Cooked" but also some Beckett and directions from Mahler's scores, among other things. The orchestral part was a wealth of quotations, especially from Mahler's 3rd "Resurrection Symphony" as well as dissonant original music. I listen to the work repeatedly, but did not exactly "get it."

Some 47-odd years have gone by. There have been other versions that included the new 5th movement but I missed them. Now we have a new version with Josep Pons conducting the Synergy Vocals and the BBC Symphony (Harmonia Mundi 902180). Most notably it is paired with Berio's orchestrations of early Mahler songs "10 Fruhe Lieder," which Berio set in 1986 and 1987.

Since the songs, some in particular, inform Mahler's 3rd Symphony, hearing all of this together on one CD mutually illuminates both works and Berio's music thinking at these critical junctures--and give us something to think about the middle-early Mahler, who himself was synthesizing his earlier musical ideas and those of the Vienna which was so much a part of his life at the time.

The "Fruhe Lieder" features the wonderful baritone of Mattias Goerne, the exceptional songs themselves and Berio's subtle orchestrations. They make a perfect prelude to the "Sinfonia," which in this performance following the Lieder makes more coherent Berio's project. The role of the "amplified" voices, in contrast to the final mix of the original recording by Berio, is not so out front, but more of an element in the great collage that is this work. The words become less critical, the music more symphonic as a whole.

In the end, Pons treatment of both, the sequencing and the overall blend is very satisfying. Partly too, this post-modern collaging is more familiar to us, both in what has come after but also in works like Cage's "Variations IV" (1963), which is an indeterminate orgy of collage that broke all the rules as only Cage might have done at the time. We have had time, some of us, to come to accept the challenge of that work via the original recorded version by Cage and Tudor. And of course as we grow older along with the modern art/visual version of such things it seems more inevitable and natural. It releases us to hear the "Sinfonia" anew.

The time for the "Sinfonia" has come, from an audience perspective but also from the viewpoint of Josep Pons and his very satisfying version.

Highly recommended.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Laszlo Lajtha, Symphony No. 2, Pecs Symphony Orchestra, Nicolas Pasquet

Laszlo Lajtha (1892-1963)? A leading Hungarian composer from the first half of the 20th century. All is the pity that many of us in the States do not know his music well. His nine symphonies and numerous string quartets are what he is most remembered for, apparently. Marco Polo released the complete cycle of symphonies with the Pecs Symphony Orchestra under Nicolas Pasquet in the '90s. They are being re-released by Naxos. Symphony No. 2 (Naxos 8.573644) has recently come out and I have been listening.

The Second is a monumentally dark, brooding symphony Lajtha wrote in 1938. It is a full-blown work, played with spirit by the Pecs Orchestra. I find myself increasingly drawn toward its modernist, Hungarian musical ethos.

Also included is the "Variations, Op. 44" (1948), the second of three works originally composed for Hillering's film version of Elliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It is notable for its long, sprawling symphonic thematics.

Is this a good introduction to Lajtha? No doubt the complete symphonic cycle is that. There is a singularity of the music on this volume and so it serves to wet one's whistle, nicely, and sets one up with expectations for the later works. And so it is worthwhile.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Discoveries

 
It is hard to imagine a 20th century English classical scene without Vaughan Williams. He gave us a music of beauty and power that was a huge part of what made the English rebirth possible. Symphonies, operas, tone poems, his output remains a joy to those who have delved into the music wholeheartedly.

And with the advent of the label Albion, an offshoot of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, we get to hear music that for whatever reason did not enjoy wide distribution until now. Discoveries (Albion 028) is one of the latest and best of their releases. We have the chance to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra and soloists in a program of tone poems, songs and film music that until now have been all-but forgotten, yet turn out to be vintage Vaughan Williams.

The "Three Nocturnes for Baritone and Orchestra" is an early work dating from 1908, when Ralph was studying with Ravel. One of the three movements was orchestrated; the other two have been orchestrated by Anthony Payne. The setting of Walt Whitman's poetry is something Vaughan Williams did a number of times in his lifetime. Here is a first go with a impressionism and harmonic palette similar to his "Riders to the Sea," among others. It is a hauntingly memorable work. The middle movement was long missing. This is the first recording of all three movements. Baritone Roderick Williams does a great job here.

"A Road All Paved with Stars - A Symphonic Rhapsody from the Opera The Poisoned Kiss"  (1936) is an arrangement of some of the high musical points in the opera by Adrian Williams. It is very lyrical and impassioned, nicely capturing the Vaughan Williams of that time.

"Stricken Peninsula - An Italian Rhapsody for Orchestra" was originally a film score for a short army propaganda movie about Italian reconstruction at the end of WWII. The score was lost but Philip Lane has transcribed it and rearranged it into a suite. It makes for worthwhile hearing, though perhaps not entirely earth shattering. Still, it is something worth hearing.

"Four Last Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra" were written to the poetry of his wife Ursula, Only one was performed during Ralph's lifetime. They were originally conceived for voice and piano. In Anthony Payne's orchestration they become a thing of mysterious contemplation. Jennifer Johnston sings them with great artistry.

This is music any lover of Vaughan Williams will welcome and appreciate. It is seminal collection of worthwhile obscurities that I recommend without reservation. Thank you, Albion!


Friday, January 13, 2017

Steve Reich, Duets, Kristjan Jarvi, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir

To celebrate Steve Reich's 80th birthday year there have been a number of important releases. I covered the ECM set a while back and today we consider another, Kristjan Jarvi and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir in a 2-CD set simply titled Duet (Sony Classics 88985366362). Whereas the ECM set covered the breakthrough classics in a reissue of the original versions, Duet presents some later gems for orchestra and orchestra and chorus in brand new versions.

Most important are the world premiere orchestral versions of "Daniel (Variations)" and "You Are (Variations)," two stunning works that manage to take further the interlocking pulsations of "Music for 18 Musicans," the choral polyphonic extensions of "Tehillim" and the string writing of "Four Sections."

An excellent version of the latter is included in the set, along with the short but captivating "Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra." As a kind of bonus, Steve and Kristjan give us a rousing version of the earlier "Clapping Music."

This set does for Reich's later orchestral period what the ECM set does for the breakthrough middle period, only Jarvi's versions of the works are newly minted. They are as near definitive in their own way as those ECM versions were for the older music.

This set evokes a world where Reich's post-modern rhythmic lyricism is a mature entity of supreme originality and extraordinary power. It is OUR world, a testament to the seminal importance of Reich's compositional mastery.

Unconditionally recommended! Happy 80th, Maestro Reich!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rodrigo, Serranilla, Songs with Guitar Accompaniment, Jose Ferrero, Marco Socias

Any appreciator of Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) and the Spanish folk-classical nexus will doubtless find the volume on tap today fascinating and rewarding. Serranilla, Songs with Guitar Accompaniment (Naxos 8.573548) gives us some 24 songs, sung very well by the late Jose Ferrero (1972-2016) with very appropriate guitar work by Marco Socias. The latter arranged-transcribed the guitar part (from piano versions) for some 17 of them. The rest are as Rodrigo scored them. In this set of world premiere recordings we get the melodic brilliance of Rodrigo in a Spanish folk mode and his Spanish-classical style in seven settings from "Con Antonio Machado."

These deserve a wider hearing and in the guitar accompanied versions we have especially fine vintage Rodrigo, some 60 year's worth. Everyone will recognize and appreciate his "Aranquez, ma pensee," a song setting of the principal theme from "Concierto de Aranquez." But the rest have the power to enchant as well.

The guitar and tenor combination seems just right for Rodrigo's intimate approach and the Ferrero-Socias handling of it all is very idiomatic and beautiful to experience.

A volume to savor! Well worth hearing many times.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Peter Scott Lewis, The Four Cycles

American composer Peter Scott Lewis (b. 1953) is a masterful creator of song cycles, as we readily hear in his recent offering The Four Cycles (Naxos 8.559815), which includes his complete vocal music to date. He is both modern and expressive at the same time, capable of writing in a harmonically ultra-advanced, edgy tonality or at times staying closer to a key center, his piano parts sometimes complicated, moving especially in the case of "Where the Heart is Pure (Duo Version)" (1993/2013) where Christine Abraham's  mezzo-soprano has a massive impact that the piano part (Keisuki Nakagoshi) makes tangible and modern-dramatic.

"The Changing Light" (2013) and "Five Love Motets" (2014) are scored for The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet and, for the first of these cycles,  piano (Stephen Gosling). They are beautifully conceived and performed, with a four-part counterpart-homophony that stands out as constituting some of the most accomplished chamber vocal music of our times. There is a sure hand at work and results that tintinnabulate in the ear with irresistible heft and charm.

The final "Three Songs from he Ish River" (1976-78) substitutes classical guitar (Colin McAllister) for the usual piano, and thrives on soprano Susan Narucki's delightful nuance.

This is "pure" vocal music in an international modern style. There are no obvious vernacular touches but instead a play on consonance and dissonance, almost hearkening back to the Viennese School but ultimately original and captivating in its own right.

It's a surprise and will be a joy for all attracted to the modern-day extensions of the lieder.

Bravo!