Search This Blog


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Adam Levin, 21st Century Spanish Guitar 2, Balada, Torres, etc.

Spanish guitar technique has evolved over the centuries such that is now a relatively cohesive body of ways of attacking and/or simultaneously sounding one or more of the nylon strings. In our century those techniques continue to expand in breadth at the same time as the compositions reflect the vast development of melodic-harmonic possibilities present in the overall classical music oeuvre.

We can hear nine examples in 21st Century Spanish Guitar 2 (Naxos 8.573409) played exceptionally well by guitarist Adam Levin as the second volume of a projected four in all. Eight of the nine are in first recordings. All were composed in the present decade.

Leonardo Balada's "Caprichos No.11" a reworking of five of Granados' "Danzas espanolas," opens the program with a flair. From there we are treated to interesting and worthy pieces by known and less-known Spanish composers Jesus Torres, Marc Lopez Godoy, Anton Garcia Abril, Luis de Pablo, Eduardo Soutullo, Jacobo Duran-Loriga, Benet Casablancas and Juan Manuel Ruiz.

These are compelling modern abstractions with traditional folk and improvisational feels mixed in with bold dashes of the contemporary. All but one were written especially for Levin and are dedicated to him. He returns the favor with dedicated, intricately realized performances that do full justice to the music.

This is indispensable listening for anyone interested in modernity in general and the Spanish guitar in particular. Volume two alone is a landmark collection in itself. Do not miss this one!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Eric Berlin, Calls and Echoes, American Sonatas for Trumpet and Piano

The cold months of the year and especially the holiday season seem like a good time for brass music. That may be personal, as I grew up with Gabrieli and  Handel's "The Trumpet Shall Sound" as part of my high school music program in Decembers and I kept up with it later on.

So an album by Eric Berlin, "American Sonatas for Trumpet and Piano," aka Calls and Echoes (MSR 1395) is sounding very good to me just about now. Berlin is a fine virtuoso well matched for the four dynamic and stirring works included on disk. His piano counterpart, Nadine Shank, seconds him with idiomatic and dramatic readings, and so the two render the music quite nicely indeed.

These four sonatas come to us in a modern neo-classical style. Each of them ventures meaningfully into the bravura and exploratory pathways that the trumpet-piano pairing suggests. James Stephenson's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (2001), Stanley Friedman's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (1995), Kent Kennan's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (1956) and finally Robert Suderberg's "Chamber Music VII: Ceremonies for Trumpet and Piano" (1984) are works of substance and one might say heroic qualities. By that I mean they demand a sort of heroic ability on the part of the soloist which Eric Berlin brings to us in all fullness.

This may have come out several years ago but it is every bit as vibrant now as then. Anyone who loves the trumpet played well and the neo-classical modern idiom will be very pleased with this one, I would certainly say. There is something timeless about the works and performances, yet they blow some warmth into your musical soul that is quite fitting for the winter months!

Very recommended.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Vincent D'Indy, Symphony No. 2, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jean-Luc Tingaud

If you had to put a very short list of composers responsible for the French modern school in chronological order it might appropriately read Franck-D'Indy-Debussy-Ravel-Messiaen. Some might have trouble with the fact that Faure, Milhaud, and Poulenc were missing, or Boulez, or any number of others, but the main idea is that Vincent D'Indy (1851-1931) was as important to the modern French School's post-late-romantic beginnings as anyone, yet his music does not bask in the sunlight of continual performances and recordings around the world.

But, no fear. Naxos has released a representative assortment of D'Indy orchestral works headed by his Symphony No. 2 (8.573522). Jean-Luc Tingaud conducts the Royal National Orchestra in a set of dynamic, very serviceable readings that bring out the orchestrational excellence of the works and provide a clear roadmap through the thickets and twists of D'Indy's mature musical mind.

The Symphony (1902-03) at first might not strike one as revolutionary in its orchestral language, but close listening brings out the contrasts between folkish themes and proto-impressionist, dappled pictorial orchestration. For that matter Wagner's forest music from "Siegfried" was as much pre-impressionist as this D'Indy music could be, but then D'Indy established a French precedent that those that came after could identify as a possible national-modernist trait.

What matters now is that his music as heard in the Symphony, his melancholy "Souvenirs" (1906), the somewhat exotic "Istar" (1896), and the Prelude to his opera "Fervaal" (1889-95) offers us a snapshot in time of  what was progressive music. If we listen with open ears, we can hear something of what came after but also appreciate D'Indy as fully integral, a fully convincing musical personality in his own right.

So this is a nice volume to hear and listen closely to, well done and filled with D'Indy's special music. Give it a hearing!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sergei Bortkiewicz, Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12, Alfonso Soldano

The 20th Century was a high-water mark for classical music, with the recorded medium greatly expanding our ability to hear a great number of works by composers we might otherwise never have had a chance to experience. That situation continues in our present-day world. And we continue to uncover composers and works that have generally been unavailable to us previously.

Today we have an example in the music of Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), whose piano pieces are nicely represented in Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12 (Divine Art 25142). Alfonso Soldano authoritatively mans the piano chair for a full program of solo works that cover the period of 1908 to 1946.

Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukraine, trained for a musical career in St. Petersburg and Leipzig, settled in Berlin. During WWI he was deported and lived again in Russia. The Revolution and WWII found him again fleeing his various homes until the end of the war allowed him to settle one last time in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1952.

Perhaps these continued dislocations can explain why his music has been all-but-forgotten today. That and a rather stubborn will to remain within a late romantic style.  Today we care less that someone did not follow the trends and fashions of his or her times, and the music sounds surprisingly fresh, somewhere between Rachmaninov and early Scriabin, yet continuously original in its thematic-melodic creativity. So the end result sounds not so much derivative as an integral voice, another pianistic force within the style-set.

Soldano makes a convincing case for these works, with virtuoso dramatics, sparkle, shimmer and dash.

I find in Bortkeiwicz as presented here a real discovery, not in some history-changing sense but in the quality and originality of the music. Bravo!  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ross Harris, Symphony No. 5, Violin Concerto

New Zealand's Ross Harris (b. 1945) is a happy surprise of a composer for me. The Naxos (8.573532) CD at hand gives us poetic readings of his Violin Concerto  and his Symphony No. 5, two expressionistic gems handled beautifully by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under Gary Walker for the former and Eckehard Stier for the latter. Ilya Gringolts sounds inspired in the solo violin role and mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell is glowingly moody in the solo vocal part of the Symphony.

Harris adroitly negotiates the terrain between tonality and atonality in both works. The Violin Concerto (2010) gives the soloist lyrical-mysterioso passages alternating with a bracing turbulence and the orchestra follows and expands the moods in ways that remind favorably of Berg's Concerto and its depth without in anyway mimicking it.

The Symphony No. 5 (2013) sets three poems of Panni Palasti that recall her immersion in wartime Budapest during the Nazi siege there during WWII. Opening and closing adagios of austerely striking beauty frame directly communicating settings of the poems, which in turn are set off by two vividly depictive scherzos that portray wartime violence and horror.

Harris is a composer of substantial orchestral nuance and freshly thematic substance. The two works paired in this release enjoy dramatically moving and crisp readings that set a high benchmark.

Harris is a modernist of real stature! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Steve Reich, The ECM Recordings, 3-CD Set

The three albums recorded by Steve Reich for ECM beginning in 1978 can be said without exaggeration to have changed the face of modern music for good and all. Terry Riley's "In C" was a first masterpiece of the so-called minimalism in the late '60s. Reich had established himself as a major member of this school with the phase electronics compositions "Ain't Gonna Rain" and "Come Out," then began his gradual climb to instrumental profundity with such works as "Four Organs." By the time he had completed and recorded "Drumming" for DGG he had shown us all how via sound color and phasing and a kind of neo-African ethos he could create long works that held interest with exhilarating forms-in-motion as unprecedented as they were brilliant.

All this sets the stage for Reich's extraordinarily fruitful involvement with the ECM label. To honor Reich's 80th birthday year the three albums he made for ECM: The ECM Recordings  (ECM New Series 2540-42), are available now as a special three-CD box set that includes an illuminating 43-page booklet with the original liners and a fine retrospective essay by Paul Griffiths.

The first album for the label contained the landmark extended work "Music for 18 Musicians." It marked a breakthrough for Reich and for minimalism as well. Here was a doubled-sided, full length work that took Reich's neo-African, pan-world idea of extended rhythmic-melodic form and developed it with a sectional approach to interrelated, pulsating thematic counterpoint. The part writing used extremely inventive melo-rhythmic cells, each with intrinsic interest that made their repetition seem desirable and as a shifting interlocking whole gave the listener a full-dimensional panorama of driving lyricism.

Like Riley's "In C" the motifs sounded especially well together. Reich sequenced the whole to proceed to ever-altering motival combinatory stations, some in a line of logical-affective development and others marking the beginning of shifted new beginning points.

He created new form out of modulating harmonic clouds hovering over foundational pedals in conjunction with urgently dynamic rhythmic sophistications, varying ensemble colors and melodic brilliance. Virtually anyone (like myself) who had been following minimalism to that point recognized and embraced the music as a fully satisfying way to proceed. Nothing was quite the same afterwards.

Indeed the album, so the liners tell us, sold a brisk 100,000 copies, unheard of for such music at that point. And it established Reich for good as a major composer of our times, truly.

The two albums that followed over the next several years on ECM continued along the lines of the brilliant first one. Octet - Music for a Large Ensemble - Violin Phase redid one of Reich's most compelling "phase" period works with Shem Guibbory holding forth spectacularly on multiple overdubbed violins. The other two works continued where "18" left off, crafting further period-oriented ensemble fireworks. For whatever reason, "Music for a Large Ensemble" has never been recorded again to date, and that makes this volume that much more essential.

The third record, Tehillim, gave us Jewish liturgical minimal music as striking for its vocal writing as "18" was for its ensemble instrumental inventions.

A vocal quartet engages in some of the most moving contrapuntal writing of our era, and a large ensemble reinforces and expands what they are doing for a music where repetition is utilized with through composed and song structured form for yet another kind of sound, yet another aspect of the Reich approach, equally brilliant and memorable.

Of course there have been many great Reich works following this ECM period, but surely these three albums set the pace for all that came after. The performances have never been topped, though there have been some excellent versions of much of this music in the years that have followed. But on all counts, this set is essential.  If you don't know so-called minimalism very well, get this set; if you don't know Reich well, get this; and anyone else who might not have the music...just get this!

Essential, period. And an essential period.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Gene Pritsker, Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death

With to date more than 580 compositions completed, Gene Pritsker can certainly be said to be prolific. And yet none of the works I have had the pleasure to have heard sound formulaic or hasty. Quite the contrary. His music is new in the most important sense, filled with a contemporary, dynamic ethos and a meaningful synthesis of new music classical per se, a strain of neo-classical at times, plus the pronounced and creative influence of rock, jazz, soul and rap, depending upon the work at hand.

I've covered quite few of his releases on these and related blog pages. Today I am back with another goodie, Melodies Alone Can Proudly Carry Their Own Death, The Chamber Music of Gene Pritsker (Composers Concordance 0037).

The album culls together eight distinguished short-to-somewhat-longer works in ever-varying configurations: solo violin, solo cello, bass clarinet and percussion, piano and drums, violin and cello, flute, clarinet and piano, and bass clarinet and electric guitar.

In a way anything goes here but it goes in ways that stand out as fully Pritskeresque--finely constructed pieces with idiomatic part writing, stylistic multiplicity, rhythmic vitality and a recognizable Pritsker wholeness. Perhaps only Zappa before him has combined so much and so selectively, yet with such individual personality.

We never feel, though, that we are looking back, as much as we are moving forward. Gene Pritsker is a composer of our times, and undeniably one of the most original, daring and satisfying.

This chamber volume reminds us of that forcefully. Hear this and hear where we are now, one place at least!

Very recommended.