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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Shostakovich, Piano Concertos 1 and 2, String Quartets 2 and 8 (solo piano versions), Boris Giltburg


Shostakovich most of the time managed to run the social realist gamut of the Soviet Union censors while remaining true to his artistic vision. He did endure periods of marked condemnation, notably in 1936 and 1948, but for the most part his talent outshined the strife. That did not mean that he had an easy go of it. His piano concertos were a good case in point. They were separated in time by some 24 years. Concerto No. 1 hails back to 1933; No. 2 from 1957. A new recording of them by pianist Boris Giltburg and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko is out and brings them both into sharp relief (Naxos 8.5736666). Both relied upon masses-inspiring gallops for the outer movements and lyrical interludes in the middle.  Dmitri must have felt  that such a sequence would meet with acceptance and approval. But there is ever a mood of refusal within each movement, a brilliantly original waywardness that survives as a subtext to outward compliance.

In any case the music holds plenty of attractions for us today. Very Russian in a Shostakovichian way, with enough modern touches to put them in the time frame of the then-present, they have real appeal and bittersweet poignancy when played in the ultra-spirited, then ultra-lyrical manner of Giltburg and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

A dramatic shift can be heard in the Giltburg solo piano version of Shostakovich's "String Quartet No. 8." It is a much more "advanced" work, expressive and uncompromising, and we feel the contrast especially vividly when we compare piano part to piano part. It is around 1960, when Shostakovich was apparently under increasing pressure to tow the ideological line, and though he complied it left him in a temporarily shattered state. Quartet No. 8 was a work he privately dedicated to his own memory, looking back on his life in very expressive, dark terms. It was his own private music, completely unmindful of government approval or rejection.

The Giltburg piano version is a nice revelation, as is his version of the allegro to Quartet No. 2  that also appears on the album.

If the piano concertos represent Shostakovich's brilliant transcendence over orthodoxy, his Quartet No. 8 is a bitter rejection of it. There is stark contrast here, but with the dedicated performances on the disk, there is ultimate triumph!

Recommended heartily.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mandala 3, Music By David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu, Gemini

We have a set of four modern chamber compositions, two each by David Lumsdaine (b. 1931) and Nicola LeFanu (b, 1947) on the CD Mandala 3 (Metier 28565). They are well performed by the chamber ensemble Gemini, which is directed by Ian Mitchell.

The program begins with the somewhat whimsical  LeFanu "Invisible Places, in 16 continuous sections" (1986) for clarinet and string quartet. Next follows a short "fire in leaf and grass" (1991) for soprano (Sarah Leonard) and clarinet (Ian Mitchell) by Lumsdaine. The mood is carried over to the more lengthy and involved LeFanu song cycle "Trio 2 - Song for Peter" (1983) for soprano, bass clarinet/clarinet and cello. It is an effectively moody piece in a modernist chromatic, advanced-harmonic zone.

Last but not least on the program is the forty-minute Lumsdaine work "Mandala 3" (1978) for chamber ensemble featuring Aleksander Szram on solo piano. It is an extension and flowering outward of Lumsdaine's (1975) solo piano work "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh." Both are based on the movingly beautiful final chorus of Bach's St. Matthew Passion."Mandala 3" in the composer's words is a "more extended structure which further explore[s] the harmony of Bach's chorus in terms of style and layers of textures." It is all divided into three parts, the first is a transcription of the chorus as a classical quintet, which sets the tone for what follows, a sonata continuously flowing out of part one, developing the music into something still related but other, then even more modernly other. Part two dissolves into the "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh" piano section (i.e., Part three), an extended fantasia that centers on the piano rapture surrounded by the chamber ensemble that echoes, then states the chorus theme once again. Like Foss's "Baroque Variations" the classic themes are recontextualized and stylistically refigured into later style zones. But Lumsdaine does it differently and originally.

It is an eerie, masterful work both with Bach both inside it as it were, and outside of it looking in. In the end it is neither quite out of the neo-classical Bach filtered zone nor quite sturdily situated as a modern commentary. In is both and it is a joy to hear.

"Mandala 3" makes this program very desirable; the other works give much contrasting interest. In all the album provides much pleasure and a good taste of what Lumsdaine and LeFanu have been doing. I am glad to have it to repeat the experience, probably many times.

Very recommended.

Monday, February 27, 2017

George Lewis, The Will to Adorn, International Contemporary Ensemble

Of all the avant jazz artists who have turned to new music composition, trombonist George Lewis is among the most rewarding and successful. He started as a key member of Chicago's black collective AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and then saw greater exposure as the trombonist in Anthony Braxton's breakout small group. He was an important component of many avant jazz ensembles that followed, including his own groups, ended up a professor at Columbia University and is now Vice-Chairman of the music department, where his interest in electronics and experimental new music composition as well as his continued involvement with avant improvisation have found an institutional outlet and ever-increasing recognition.

Some of his vibrant new music compositions are given near ideal performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble on a new CD entitled The Will to Adorn (Tundra New Focus Recordings 005).

This is beautifully contrapuntal new music that preserves the pointillist and timbral liveliness of the best avant jazz ensembles and transposes it all into written works that demand precision and commitment to an expression at once Afro-American as well as international.

"The Will to Adorn" (2011) leads off the set with a putting into musical terms what Zora Neale Hurston named as a primary characteristic of Afro-American expression in a 1934 essay. Dr. Lewis achieves in beautiful ensemble intercomplexities what Hurston described as a "decoration of a decoration"--in nearly infinite spilling over of counterlines on counterlines. ICE brings it all to us in exciting ways.

From there we experience three more chamber works that vary the musical utterances and instrument combinations but stay within a super-variational context. And so we hear and appreciate "Shadowgraph, 5" (1977), "Artificial Life 2007" (2007), and "Born Obbligato" (2013), exciting ventures into the new.

To top off the program George Lewis's unaccompanied trombone has a solo highlight on composer T. J. Anderson's "In Memoriam Albert Lee Murray" (2013), the latter a writer of insight into Afro-Jazz topics. The jazz tradition is encapsulated and celebrated in this short work, which reminds us of course what an excellent artist Lewis is in the instrumental realms.

And so we come to the end of a beautifully composed and executed volume, giving us pause and good reason to consider George Lewis as one of our leading American composers today. Any modernist follower, modern Afro-jazz fan and new music champion should find this music as I did, vital, extraordinary and a beautiful listen.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Storm - Fear

There is a very dramatic component to the later music of Finnish composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008), at least as far as the three orchestral works on the recent release Storm - Fear (Alba Super Audio CD 399) are concerned. His is a high modernist, expressionist approach that breathes with arcs of narrative power.

The two concerted works, "Concerto No. 2 for piano, strings and percussion Op. 112" (2001) and "Concerto for piano left hand only and chamber orchestra, Op. 129" (2004) nicely showcase the dedicated interpretive poeticism of pianist Henri Sigfridsson  and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra under Juha Kangas. The mutually rewarding relationship of the composer and the orchestra during his lifetime leaves us with performances that sound most definitive.

The "Song cycle to poems by Edith Sodergran for mezzo-soprano, strings and harp Op. 123" (2003) features the moving vocal performance of Monica Groop.

All three works have a somewhat dark demeanor, punctuated by glimpses of sunlight. Nordgren's sure hand and paramount mood-setting give us a strong wordless series of story lines (paralleled, of course in the song cycle with the poetry declamation) that contextualize the extended modernist palette in very personal ways.

This is not so much a music of virtuosity as that of character. All who bask in modernist tone painting will no doubt find this disk of high interest. Nordgren deserves remembrance and celebration, and we get the chance to do both in this highly attractive program.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Axel Borup-Jorgensen, Organ Music, Jens E. Christensen

Those who like me revel in the cathedral organ and at the same time respond readily to high modernism in this context (for example in the organ music of Messiaen) will find the recent release of Axel Borup-Jorgensen's Organ Music (Our Recordings 6.220617) quite appealing, a sophisticated trip into an organic cosmos both mysterious and bracing.

He was born in 1924 in Denmark, grew up in Sweden, lived a quiet but productive life as composer and teacher and left this world in 2012. Originally primarily a pianist-composer (type his name in the search box above for a review of some of that), he became increasingly attracted to the organ, happily, since the current release contains nine works that stand out for their contrasting quietude and energy, their subtle shifts and cosmic openness. This is a music of matter-of-fact suchness rather than virtuoso complexities. Part of that has to do with Axel's insurance that the works would be well performed by very competent players who were not necessarily leading technicians.

Borup-Jorgensen's attention to nuance and atmospheric presence, of silence into sound and vice-versa ensure that we do not miss extended passages of demonically difficult passagework. His is a music of the earth and sky, a spiritual reaching out to sonic worlds we do not often dwell in, an original cosmos of organicity,

The nine works on the CD include three for organ alone, one for organ duo, one for cembalo and organ,  two for organ and percussionist, one for alto and organ and one for bass and organ.

"Winter Music" for percussion and organ makes use of the cathedral space for some dramatically resonant drums against a searching organ. That one is perhaps the most dramatic but Jens E. Christensen's careful attention to detail and sympathy for the Borup-Jorgensen universe ensure that we are immersed in a sonic wash of sound that is as extended in modern realms as it is unassumung.

This is not music to overwhelm the senses or shock. It is a very personal journey into Borup-Jorgensen's exploration of sonic and textural possibilities latent in the modern cathedral organ.

Bravo!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, Complete String Quartets 5, Carpe Diem String Quartet

From what I have heard thus far, Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856-1915) and his String Quartets make up a body of work unsurpassed in pre-modern Russian chamber realms. Not until Shostakovich and his quartets would we have anything comparable. A while back I covered a volume of the Carpe Diem Quartet's version of the Taneyev cycle (type "Taneyev" in the search box above for that). Now I return with their Complete String Quartets 5 (Naxos 8.573671), which covers Quartet No 8 and, with the addition of James Buswell on viola, String Quintet No. 2.

This, I assume the final volume in the series, affirms both Taneyev's largely unheralded stature in the quartet literature and Carpe Diem's authoritative performances.

Quartet No. 8 is filled with marvelous contrapuntal inventions, sounding for all generalities as a sort of Russian Beethoven in the late romantic-pre-modern zone. Anyone who might appreciate previously unknown, extraordinarily crafted and spirited quartet-quintet gems will readily take to this volume 5 in particular and all five in general, from what I have heard of them.

Taneyev is but one, yet nevertheless an important one of the too little examined treasures of the Russian 20th century as a whole.

Recommended for chamber music fans and Russophiles!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Yevgeny Kutik, Words Fail, with John Novacek


Those who are actively inclined toward music have experienced pieces that somehow go beyond what words alone can express, leaving a palpable something behind that has great meaning. So-called serious music, classical or jazz especially, does this exceptionally well.

I have a relative who can only appreciate music with lyrics, songs. This essentially closes her off to the most sublime moments that music can give us.  That is sad. What such people miss! Of course (and thankfully for the rest of us) those more dedicated to musical arts know and grasp the deeper communicative levels instrumental music can convey. We are the lucky ones and I thank the heavens every day for that. We can appreciate the musical equivalent of "tweets" (when done well) or the complexities of a long musical "novel." There is so much more available to the sensitive listener and you are my audience, surely.

Violinist Yevgeny Kutik and pianist John Novacek have put together a wide-ranging program of duos which communicate in this way on the album Words Fail (Marquis 774718147721). The results play themselves inside your head with varying degrees of urgency, but all "say" something profound with notes alone.

We begin auspiciously with three of Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words" arranged for violin and piano by Friedrich Hermann. These are paradigms of song forms that use melody alone to communicate moods to the listener, and in so doing leave a distinct impression.

Next up is the Adagio from Mahler's "Symphony No. 5," a heartfelt, searchingly poetic utterance that when translated to violin and piano by Robert Wittinger seems all the more direct.

Two world premiere recordings follow: Michael Gandolfi's "Arioso Doloroso/Estatico," a very expressive mood piece for unaccompanied violin; and Timo  Andres' "Words Fail," which winds itself out as a central rhythmic motif joins a varying sequential melodic-harmonic pattern that seems perhaps melancholy or regretful but is complicated by its non-literal nature.

Tchaikovsky's own "Song without Words" (here arranged by Fritz Kriesler) has like Mendelssohn's series by that name a definite litero-evocative subtext that one senses gladly.

Following the program we next hear Prokofiev's rather rare "Five Melodies, Op.35bis." Prokofiev nearly always strikes me as a musical mind that can via instrumental utterance communicate intricate, multiple feeling complexes quite beyond verbal description. That is much the case with these five movements. Wonderful music to hear!

Further on in the modern zone is Messiaen's "Theme et variations," with his own complex rhythmic-melodic-harmonic sense, creating meaning with fully dense language that goes far beyond the verbal. Kutik comes through with an especially inspired performance.

Lisa Auerbach, a living force in composition and string playing whom we have familiarized ourselves with on an ECM recording a couple of months ago, makes a lovely appearance with her "T'filah (Prayer) for solo violin."  The musical-speech aspect of this work is pronounced, though of course we get no voice nor verbal equivalence. It is haunting.

Kutik's sweetly expressive power on the violin is exactly what all this music demands. He never flags but soars and whispers his way through the music like the young master he is. John Novacek (and Timo Andres on the title piece) give pianistic structure and a unwavering poetic concentration as perfect foils to Kutik's eloquence.

This program comes at you like a breath of springtime air, just sweet enough to evoke complex associations but never evoking outright sentimentality.

Well recommended!