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Friday, May 30, 2014

Oswald von Wolkenstein, The Cosmopolitan, Songs, Ensemble Leones, Marc Lewon

Oswald von Wolkenstein (1336?-1445), songster-composer, poet and diplomat, a member of the South Tyrolean nobility. . . . not a name on the tip of one's tongue unless you are a specialist in the late middle ages-early renaissance, but nonetheless a figure of stature.

Ensemble Leone, under the direction of Marc Lewon, give us a rather full look at the composer side of Wolkenstein with The Cosmopolitan (Christophorus). Ensemble Leone comprises six members, vocalists and multi-instrumentalists of a good assortment of period instruments.

Von Wolkenstein's songs are interspersed with instrumental pieces for dance or entertainment. As has been the case since the sixties of last century, the ensemble takes pains to bring out the unique timbres and almost "ethnic" flavor of the secular music then in style. Unlike music for the church there is some part singing but not as a main focus.

The songs form of course the body of the presentation. Ensemble Leone have fine vocalists who project the basically vibrato-less folk vocal qualities of the period. The songs are treated acapella or with small-to-larger-sized instrumental accompaniment. Instrumental selections vary quite nicely as well in terms of the instruments involved for any given number.

Anyone who wants to understand our current era probably should sample deeply the modern early music recordings that are now so plentiful. We are in an age that has "discovered" this music in a way similar to how the romantic era rediscovered Bach. Along with our heightened knowledge of world traditions there are universes of possibilities to discover.

Ensemble Leones' fine program of von Wolkenstein's music is a great pleasure to hear, an indispensable addition to your early music collection. They give us excellent performances of music of depth and beauty.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Poulenc, Les anges musiciens - Mélodies, Sophie Karthäuser and Eugene Asti

When a group of composers are grouped together in a "school", such as the Viennese School, the Darmstadt School, Les Six, and so on, there are historical reasons for it along with some form of stylistic continuity. Yet there are always differences, some subtle, some not, to distinguish between them. Les Six comprised among others Milhaud, Honegger and Poulenc. A close listen to them reveals distinct musical personalities.

Poulenc has a keen melodic sense that puts him apart somewhat from the others, in that there are distinctive contours to how his melodies spin out within the very French harmonic-modern context.

You can hear his gift in this realm quite readily in his songs. Sophie Karthäuser and Eugene Asti, soprano and piano, give us a vivid sense of his lyrical, horizontal brilliance in the album Poulenc, Les anges musiciens - Mélodies (Harmonia Mundi 902179). We get 37 songs in all, sung and played beautifully.

Ms. Karthäuser has both dramatic impact and lyric beauty; Eugene Asti supplies a poetically astute reading of the piano accompaniment. Altogether this album gives us a full sampling of Poulenc's songwriting, from the flippant and quasi-vernacular to the dramatically declamatory and/or a rarified liquidity.

This is a very well-performed volume of some Poulenc essentials. No Poulenc appreciation is complete without exposure to his achievement in song form. This one gives it to us with consummate artistry. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Brian Ferneyhough, Complete Works for String Quartet & Trio, Arditti Quartet

What is it that makes us respond to abstract high modernist music? Part of the answer is that some of us are attracted to the very new by disposition. Prior to last century there was no music that made full use of all the notes available in ways removed (mostly) from a key center, that simultaneously gave us rhythmic and timbral structures only found perhaps in nature previously, at least in such concentric ways. High modernism confuses the novice because its emotive content is not literal for the most part, though horror movies have sometimes made use of the sounds to project a feeling of high anxiety. The novice has not learned the musical language and so sees it as something meant to disturb, which isn't the case most all of the time.

Those who bask in the rarified sounds have learned the language. Like with a Jackson Pollock painting, there is rarely a literal subject matter, a concrete "meaning". The practiced avant listener lets the sounds take him/her into a different realm; she/he experiences it as a form of structured aural sensation in the same way as one takes in the pattern of dripped pigment in a Jackson Pollock.

These are thoughts that occur to me as I listen once again to Brain Ferneyhough's Complete Works for String Quartet & Trio (Aeon 3-CD Set 1335) as performed by the Arditti Quartet.

Ferneyhough (b. 1943) is one of the later generation of abstractionists, compared with Boulez or Elliott Carter. Other than a student work not included in the set, he began his output for quartet and trio in 1967 while still a resident of his native England, before he spent significant time teaching composition at Freiburg in 1973-1986. He then made the move to the US, where he has resided since.

That first work was his "Sonatas for String Quartet" which fittingly opens the program and begins our journey through the complete works. I've noted before how the string quartet as practiced by later Beethoven, Bartok and Carter is the medium where an ambitious composer might express his most profound and/or esoteric musical thoughts. Ferneyhough's works here have a terseness and absorption in the abstract. The focused intent most definitely puts the music in that transcendent realm of pure essence, rivalling some of the best the quartet medium has to offer us.

The Arditti Quartet give us extraordinarily expressive yet attentively precise readings of the works, 11 in all. A highlight is most certainly Ferneyhough's "String Quartet No. 4" (1989-90), which follows the example of Schoenberg in including a vocal part, sung very well here by soprano Claron McFadden. The three volumes take us from the initial 1967 opus all the way up to his "String Quartet No. 6" from 2010, quite a journey.

You can hear development within those 43 years, perhaps most strikingly in a refinement, a gradually more unrelenting sense of concentration. The String Trios, one long and one very short, certainly sound like they belong in the set, both stylistically and sonically.

The Arditti Quartet give us breakthrough performances of music that is as much or more difficult to play well as it is to listen to meaningfully. This is no light fare. It is difficult music on many levels. It compromises not at all. That is all the more reason to tackle the set. It is landmark music of our time in definitive readings. And it gives back as much as you the listener put into hearing it.

Very much recommended.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Julia Wolfe, Steel Hammer

The US folk song "John Henry" captures something about industrial America in its formative stages. Everybody has heard it, I assume, at least once if not more often as they grew up. As a children's song it may not have as clear a message as it did for adults who first heard it long ago, particularly in the days when it was widely performed, when mechanization was replacing individual human labor. The heroic struggle between John Henry's superhuman steel-hammer driving versus the automated, mechanized steam version still has the power to move us. There is something universal in the story. And today computers perhaps have become what steam drills and mechanical hammers once were.

As with all folk songs transmitted orally there developed variants in the text. He is said in one version to be from Georgia, another Tennessee, he was short, he was tall, he was black, he was white, etc.

Bang On A Can composer Julia Wolfe has gathered the variants and written a piece around them for the vocal Trio Medieval and the Bang On A Can All Stars instrumental ensemble, a sextet of electric guitar, cello, clarinet, piano, bass and drums. The work, Steel Hammer (Cantaloupe 21099), is out on CD and I have been listening to it.

I have mixed reactions on this one. The singing of the variants can be long and drawn out minimalist style or can be rapidly executed in movements that have more density and speed. The variants, face it, aren't all that interesting as musical text. Does it matter if the hammer was nine pounds or twenty? And even if it does do we need a lengthy passage on the singing of it, the various weights?

The second issue I have is with the melodic motives. There are some intervals and harmonies that can be interesting when repeated and varied in certain ways, especially where rhythm is a factor. Others require a great deal of situational brilliance to transcend their ordinariness, particularly when there is little rhythmic movement. Wolfe's score contains some very interesting moments and others that are banal, perhaps deliberately, but not all that interesting (to me) nonetheless.

The most effective parts have train or hammer periodicity and/or incorporate folk elements (such as old-style banjo) into the movement. And those work just fine.

I generally like Julia Wolfe's music. This one had ups and downs for me.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Passionate Diversions, A Celebration

Among present-day women composers, I have no doubt that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich ranks at the very top. Her music in the past 30 years or so has been consistently inspired as well as brilliantly crafted.

This comes through readily in a recent recording devoted to three of her chamber works, Passionate Diversions, A Celebration of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (Azica 71292).

The three works go well together, even though they cover the time span between 1987 ("Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello") and 2010 ("Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass and Piano"), rounded off by the 2008 "Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet".

All three have an expressive, serious demeanor that is brought out well by the performers at hand--the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, the Miami String Quartet and guests.

Musically an expanded yet tonal domain is the order of the day, with a blues-pentatonic feel dominating the Quintet, augmented, chromatic minor having its say in the Trio, and both juxtaposed in the Septet.

It is music of a commanding drama, hearkening back to masters like Bartok while blazing its light into the future. One immerses oneself in the well-paced declamatory sequences all the more readily the more one hears the works. Very much recommended.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ernst Toch, Violin Sonata No. 1, Cello Sonata, and Other Chamber Works

There are many reasons for the eclipse and sometimes later revival of 20th century composers. Part of it has to do with the dominant style of any given period. In any case it is heartening to discover previously neglected artists now, if their music turns out to have a good deal of merit.

In the case of Ernst Toch (1887-1964), his music was absent from consideration when I first started exploring the modern period. Some many years ago I came across a very OOP used LP of a Toch song cycle that M-G-M Records had recorded in the '50s. I was impressed with it but that was all I could find then (this was the late '80s).

Only now are we seeing a resurgence of performances and recordings, thanks in part to the Spectrum Concerts Berlin, who are responsible for performing the music on the CD up for review today. It is a collection of chamber works, including the Violin Sonata No. 1, Cello Sonata (Naxos 8.559716), and others.

Toch was one of the exiles of the Nazi years, one of the many forced to flee for his life. He taught for several years at New York's New School beginning in 1934, then the University of Southern California. Unlike Schoenberg or Hindemith, his exile did not bring with it much notoriety. In fact he eclipsed into relative obscurity and pretty much remained there for the rest of his life. Surely it had nothing to do with the quality of his music.

That we can hear for ourselves in this five-work anthology of chamber music that covers a period between 1913 and 1950. The "Violin Sonata No. 1" (1913) has in part a 19th-century feel to it but as all the works heard here it is exceptionally well-crafted. We get more of the modernist Toch in the works that follow. The "Divertimento" Op. 37, No. 1 (1925) finds him rather fully into his own style, which may remind of early Hindemith with perhaps a touch of pre-12-tone Schoenberg and Berg, but as with all these works stands on its own.

The "Cello Sonata", Op. 50 (1929) and the "String Trio", Op. 63 (1936) find him fully bloomed, abstracted yet engaging, a force for the 20th-century sensibility of his time. The three-odd minute "Adagio elegiaco" (1950) is a heart-felt lament for the victims of the holocaust. The fact that his music fit in with no set school of composers means he in some ways fought the battle for acceptance alone. Nowadays those schools are not nearly as important to us as they were, so that we can hear his music afresh and see the good in it all.

Spectrum Concerts Berlin give us nearly an hour of very well-played Toch. There are two other releases in the series which I certainly want to hear, but in the meantime we get some masterful examples of a composer that well deserves recognition.

Anyone with a penchant for early modernists will revel in this release. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ann Southam, Glass Houses Vol. 2, Christina Petrowska Quilico

Canadian composer Ann Southam passed away while her friend and associate, pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico, was working on performing the pieces that ended up as Volumes One and Two of Glass Houses. Volume Two is now out (Centerdiscs 20114). These were written some years before but sound as current as ever. Quilico gives us definitive, rhythmically charged renditions of "Glass Houses 8, 10-12 and 14". I covered some of Southam's posthumously performed piano music last April 24th, 2013 on these pages, and what was true of that recording is even more so of this.

This is a kind of minimilism but very much of Ann Southam's original own. The works generally have an ostinato pattern of chordal-melodic figures for the left hand that tend to be in an irregular meter. The right hand contrasts these recurring figures with a melodic development that articulates a different and sometimes shifting meter. The melodies are not generally cosmic passagework, which conventional first-school minimalism might tend to favor, but rather have more conventional a-b-a-c, etc., structure. This makes the music stand out as more than interesting interlocking patterns, which it is in any event, but something more through-composed as well as performative.

And so this music tends to stand out for its rhythmic vibrancy (which is substantial) AND its melodic distinctiveness. Interestingly enough Keith Jarrett in his solo concert mode would sometimes get into something like this during the middle period, but he never really worked the idea out as a melodic-compositional entity that could stand on its own. The cross-rhythmic push and the melodic sculpting that Ms. Southall develops here were never worked out consistently or palpably in the Jarrettian moment.

For that we have these wonderful Southam works. She develops an idea that was "in the air" so to speak and makes it into a lasting art of great merit.

Ms. Quilico gives us about as definitive a version as we are likely to get for some time. She has the rhythmic independence between right and left hands and the inherent pianistic artistry to make it all sing.

RIP Ann Southam. Her memory is well served and her brilliance enshrined in this marvelous Volume Two of Glass Houses. If you are the slightest bit into pattern and repetition, you will want to hear these beautiful works and Ms. Quilico's definitive way with them. Very recommended.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Thomas Larcher, What Becomes, Tamara Stefanovich, Mark Padmore and Thomas Larcher

Contemporary composer Thomas Larcher comes through with some fascinating music on What Becomes (Harmonia Mundi 907604). He has some similarities in his music at times with Satie, Crumb and Part, yet there is much more to it as well. Chord progressions recur or develop into something else, there is structure and dynamics, contemplation and eventful excitement, the sure hand and inventive ideas of a sound poet of consequence.

Essentially there are three cycles for solo piano, played with passion and precision by Tamara Stefanovich. They are "Dust I-II", "Poems I-XII", and "What Becomes I-VII", all in turns restful or very dynamic, sometimes both. The final segment is a song suite "A Padmore Cycle I-XI" with Mark Padmore singing and the composer on piano.

There is a consistency of style, rather ambiant, throughout this body of works. The performances seem exceptionally right and the music comes to you in ways that seem modern yet in a way timeless.

It surely makes me want to hear more of this composer. Thomas Larcher has a real brilliance for devising works of great sonance, created with disarmingly simple means yet far from simple in impact. The music stays with you long after you have heard it. Bravo!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Myung Whun Chung, Piano

When I was a kid supermarkets would sometimes offer the shopper an anthology of the greatest classical (orchestral) music in installments every week or month, each volume with some blockbuster from the standard repertoire in bargain-basement renditions, some that weren't so great, others surprisingly good, but either way the price was usually right. People like Readers Digest did the same but sold them as one set. The idea was that the family could be exposed to great "culture" pre-selected by experts. All they had to do was buy and listen. Then the idea was reduced to snippets, 100 of the world's most beloved classical melodies, for example. For the most part chamber music was left out of these offerings.

The modern would-be music lover has less of such things offered to her/him. Yet there still is a real need for something introductory for the novice to enjoy and perhaps by which to grow into a full-blown enthusiast.

Today's recital by Korean pianist Myung Whun Chung, primarily known as a conductor, does well for piano what those supermarket anthologies did less well for orchestral. He selects some very famous, melodically unforgettable, short piano works and plays them with a real poeticism born of talent and inspiration. The album is called simply Piano (ECM New Series B0020541-02).

This is meant for the younger listener and the novice, but the quality of the performances means that they form an enjoyable experience for the more cognisant listener as well.

What's on the program is very well-chosen. There's Beethoven's "Fur Elise", Debussy's "Claire de Lune", Chopin's "Nocturne in D-flat Major"and even Mozart's "12 Variations on 'Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman'" which (I hope) everybody will recognize these days as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". There are other works too, all appropriate and well-played. As always the ECM audio is impeccable.

For the budding ears of the young and the older alike we have in this a near-ideal introduction to the classical piano, as it were. This one makes a great gift but also something to play around the house for the kids, or grandpa, or yourself. Stockhausen Klavierstuckes? No. That would have to come later...

Well done!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Richard Causton, Millennium Scenes, Chamber Symphony, and Other Works

As the Millennium approached I fully expected a revival of modernism to suit the occasion, with a bevy of futuristic works. That didn't quite happen the way I expected. The horror of 9-11 had some bearing on that but then we had adjusted our vision of a limitless future in the years before. And so the world had less of a vision of earthly paradise and the new music to go with it than one might have supposed a half-a-century ago.

Nonetheless the modern world and the music to go with it did continue to be a factor. One of the composers doing a great deal to uphold his end of the future is Richard Causton. His Millennial Scenes (NMC D192) is every bit the sort of futuristic work that satisfies my forward-looking expectations. In fact the CD contains the title work "Millenium Scenes: Music for Large Orchestra in Two Parts" plus four other works written between 1995 and 2010. They bring us the future-now music at its best. He's a rather young fellow with an ambitious style of writing and the dash to pull it off.

"Millennium Scenes" pits string, brass, wind and percussion sections against each other in a very vibrant and dynamic four-way interaction. The other works--"Nocturne" for ensemble, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" for flute, clarinet harp, and string quartet, "the Persistence of Memory" for ensemble, and "Chamber Symphony" all have their considerable say thanks to the Halle Orchestra under Nicholas Collon, and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Gerry Cornelius or Ryan Wigglesworth.

Each work is a kind of waystation of a particular originality and in the end you are left with a feeling of talent well-realized. Causton has a sense of form and line that is conversational at the highest levels, with every part contributing to the totality of musical utterance in cohesive ways.

Richard Causton creates music out of "the modernist tradition of the future" and goes along his considerably original personal path to get there.

It's one of those indispensably new offerings no one who revels in our present-day, very musical times can afford to miss.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Duo Gazzana, Poulenc, Walton, Dallapiccola, Schnittke, Silvestrov

Probably the hardest review to write in this space is an anthology of diverse works you aren't familiar with initially. Yet such collections can be quite rewarding. So I jump in today with the violin-piano Duo Gazzana and their recording of selected works by Poulenc/Walton/ Dallapiccola/Schnittke/Silvestrov (ECM New Series B0020437-02).

The duo is made up of the sisters Natascia Gazzana (violin) and Rafaella Gazzana (piano). The Italy-born twosome formed the duo alliance in the mid-90s. This is their second album for ECM. I covered the first, Five Pieces, quite favorably in this space last November 21st, 2011.

What these works have in common is a contemporary modern 20th-21st Century treatment of classical forms. The program begins with Alfred Schnittke (1938-1994) and his 1972 "Suite in the Old Style" which comes off well and shows Schnittke at his rooted yet inimitable best. There is a playful vivacity to the work, the charms of which are hard to resist.

Valentin Silvestrov (b 1937) gives us an original take on neo-baroque in his 2009 "Hommage a J.S.B.", a work with contrapuntal weight and a real sense of gravitas.

We get more well-considered old-in-the-new music in Francis Poulenc's "Sonata for Violin and Piano" (1942/3 rev 1948), which builds elaborately upon toccata, suite, divertissement and variations forms for a present-era point of view that has Poulenc's patented forward-moving sense of kinetic energy. William Walton's "Toccata" (1922/23) is an early work that has a greatly expressive, rhapsodic flourish. Finally Luigi Dallapiccola chimes in with "Tartiana seconda" (1956), a modern contrapuntal workout inspired by Baroque master Tartini. This is a work of great memorability, handled with zest by the duo. A fitting end to a wide-ranging and continually absorbing program.

These works call often for considerable interpretive and technical excellence. The youthful dash of Duo Gazzana give us plenty of both in a program of unity within great diversity. What seems at first a potpourri of varying modern period masters and their works comes together to give us a sort of survey of the ways tradition has not always been overturned in modern times but sometimes also has aided and forwarded the search for new sounds within expressive and structural models that date back centuries.

Duo Gazzana brings us performances of vivid musicality. One could not ask for much better than this. They are virtually without peer for this kind of repertoire today. Molto bravo! I look forward to more. Encore!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Meredith Monk, Piano Songs

There is something "organic" about the music of Meredith Monk. I don't mean that she writes the musical equivalent of granola or that there is anything new age about it. The music seems to fall out of her imagination like a fully formed plant, so to speak.

We took a look yesterday at a fairly early work for vocal ensemble. Today a brand new recording, Piano Songs (ECM New Series B0020439-02) with Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker giving us very idiomatic reads of her one and two-piano works. The pieces range from the early "Tower" (1971) to the fairly recent "totentanz" (2006).

Organic? Ms. Monk mentions in the liners the influences of Satie, Bartok and Mompou on her piano music, and that certainly can be heard. The folkish influence of Bartok and the diatonic lyrical melodicism of Satie especially come to mind as one listens. (Also for a moment or two early Stravinsky gets a bit of creative rechanneling.) This is a piano style that features extensive ostinato foundations and some very lyrical melody crafting. It all falls together expressively in a sort of way that hits me as "natural" (as opposed to "formal").

Her piano music is the opposite of formulaic. There is no overt stylistic structure-creation at work, but more a musical mind expressing what she hears at any given time. There is a disarming quality.

Oppens and Brubaker take to this music readily and sound just right. It is music that brings me great pleasure. And perfect for the budding memories of past and future. Excellent!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Meredith Monk, Basket Rondo, Eric Salzman, Jukebox in the Tavern of Love

Labor records issues a recording of two vocal works sung by the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble. It is nice to have this music available. It gives us well-sung versions of Basket Rondo by Meredith Monk and Jukebox in the Tavern of Love by Eric Salzman (Labor 7094).

Meredith Monk established herself on the New York avant scene as a solo singer with several albums I believe that gained her an underground following. Her music was sung to syllables of her own making. There was repetition but the music had a feel more of an imaginary ethnic music of a ritualistic sort and performance art than minimalism as it was then enjoying its first run downtown.

"Basket Rondo", in eight parts, is something a bit further on from her solo vocal music. It combines the quasi-ethnic originality with repeating ostinatos, rondo-style counterpoint and variations on both.

It is performed beautifully here and forms an important part of Ms. Monk's vocal output on the avant underground scene.

Eric Salzman became especially well-known for his composition "The Nude Paper Sermon" which combined a sort of stream-of-consciousness narrative with electronics and vocal ensemble. It came out on Nonesuch and was recently reissued by Labor. "Jukebox in the Tavern of Love" is a short mini-opera that concentrates on the vocal writing.

It is the story of a local New York neighborhood bar during a storm and blackout. The bartender is about to close up when in walks a nun, a rabbi, a poet, a chorus-line dancer, and a utility worker. They while away the time waiting for the storm to clear by sharing each something poignant about their lives in a series of song-vignettes. It is music that combines early music, elements of Broadway musical and modern classical, with less of that latter than in the "Nude Paper Sermon" but there nonetheless.

It is a moving story and the music is fitting and original though a little less thoroughgoingly contemporary than some of his other compositions. The Monk work, on the other hand has a more modern and timeless quality.

The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble handles both very well. The Monk is in its way essential; the Salzman less so but nice to have.

Tomorrow another new release of Meredith Monk's piano music.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Beethoven, Complete Works for Cello and Piano, Colin Carr, Thomas Sauer

As life goes on our collective tastes can change. I have two versions of Beethoven's Music for Cello and Piano. Both were recorded a considerable time ago by now. One is by Pablo Casals, the other by Mstislav Rostropovich. Both are excellent, yet in emotional terms, especially the Casals, they have a certain expressive quality that impresses but perhaps does not shed a balanced light on the beauty of these seminal Beethoven compositions.

So when I heard a recent version by Colin Carr on the cello and Thomas Sauer on piano (MSR Classics 1486 2-CDs) I found myself highly satisfied with the middle-ground the duo occupy. They are expressive as the music demands, very much so, and there is power and motility in their interpretations. But they are never emotionally over-the-top, though clearly they are excellent players.

There were generations of players who took their cue in romanticism from the extreme fire and passion of Beethoven's 9th. Now everything before and after that milestone is not necessarily meant to be played in extremis, a little bit less helps give proportion to the music, which in the case of Beethoven's works for cello and piano lie as much in the brilliant structure-in-motion of the music as it does in sentiments expressed.

And so while I will continue to listen to and cherish the Casals and the Rostropovich, Carr and Sauer give us a contemporary balance that wears well today, an everyday-workaday yet brilliant set of readings that puts everything into focus.

Here's a gem.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Tigran Mansurian, Quasi Parlando

As Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian approaches his 75th birthday we are treated to a disk of mostly world premiere recorded performances of some beautiful works for string soloists and string orchestra, Quasi Parlando (ECM New Series B00220274-02).

It confirms the composer as an original, expressive post-romantic voice who shows his Armenian roots in subtle yet pervasive ways. Candida Thompson conducts the Amsterdam Sinfonietta with violin soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja--and Anja Lechner joining in as cello soloist on the "Double Concerto" (1978), then taking the solo spot herself on "Quasi Parlando" (2012) . Two works featuring violin soloist and string orchestra continue the mood and sequence: "Romance" (2012) and "Concerto No. 2 'Four Serious Songs'" (2006).

Wolfgang Sandner in the liner notes talks about Mansurian's "aesthetics of reduction", the idea that the music expresses exactly what is needed for its purposes and nothing more. This is not a minimalism, however. It is rhapsodic expression that hangs onto the Armenian ethos while developing an advanced chromatic and often minor diatonic tonal palette that brings the music fully into our time.

Kopatchinskaja soars in the violin parts, as does Lechner for the cello. The string orchestra has presence and the audio is as ravishing as one might expect from the ECM New Series.

It takes a bit of time to sneak up on these works. They have sheer beauty but the structural continuity comes after a few hearings. These are works that move with grace but also great feeling, in a way the modern Armenian counterparts to a work like Berg's "Violin Concerto".

In reflection there can be solace. That occurs to me as I listen to these moving works. Strongly recommended.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Erkki-Sven Tüür, Symphony No. 7 “Pietas”, Piano Concerto, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, NDR Choir, Paavo Järvi

So many good composers out there today, so many new voices to hear! Today Erkki-Sven Tüür's Symphony No. 7 “Pietas”, Piano Concerto (ECM New Series) with Laura Mikkola as piano soloist, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and NDR Choir, all conducted by Paavo Järvi.

This is the sixth release by the Estonian composer for ECM New Series, so he is not precisely "new" in the unknown sense; nevertheless he is one of the voices of our time that needs to be heard.

Tüür was born in 1959, set about composing early on and received his first significant international recognition in the Finland of the later '80s. He has been going at it in the public eye ever since. I covered a disk that included a Tüür composition here on November 17, 2011. That was only a teaser because both works on the present release are lengthy and formidable.

Tüür avoids eclecticism and instead composes music in his own unified modernist way. The give and take of orchestra, piano and choir (the latter for the symphony) does not show traces of the pointillism of the Darmstadt School but moves along in blocks of sound that typify the section approach of late romantics and proto-modernists, though much more within a singular maelstrom of asymmetry at times and in varying combinations. The melodic-harmonic flair he so readily shows is both progressive in advanced modernist terms but also singularly his.

In the symphony the orchestra contrasts with the choir as separate entities with their own musical agenda. In contrast the piano and the orchestra in the concerto tend to work together in a dialog typical of the concerto form. But what music!

Both are movingly expressive, wonderfully orchestrated, brilliantly conceived works that give notice: Erkki-Sven Tüür has arrived. He is important to the "world new music" coming out today and we need to listen to him closely.

The performances are weighty and dynamic, beautifully wrought. The sound is glorious. Laura Mikkola plays a wonderfully catalytic role in the concerto. The accent is on new, because Tüür brings us that in a totally idiomatic way, as himself. Very recommended!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Nicolas Obouhow, Piano Works, Jay Gottlieb

Nicolas Obouhow (aka Nicolai Obhukov) (1892-1954) is not well-known to us for various extra-musical reasons. He fled his native Russia after the revolution and settled in Paris. He studied with Tcherepnin at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, later with Ravel in Paris. He was initially influenced by Scriabin, then to my ears Messiaen.

A confirmed modernist, Obouhow wrote many works for piano (as well as larger forces). It is in the former category that we hear some selected gems performed by Jay Gottlieb on the album Piano Works (Sisyphe 010).

For this particular release I only have the front cover to go on. My player indicates 45 short cuts. I do not know if any are separate movements to a larger work or when the pieces were written.

But there is a distinct Scriabin influence taken further into harmonically advanced territory. At other times there is a modular series of short phrase events that suggest the influence of Messiaen. In either case there is something much more than influence at work. Obouhow has a daring personal way with his music.

In any case this is some startlingly fresh, ultramodern music from a nearly forgotten figure whose originality is in inverse proportion to the neglect he has suffered since his death.

Pianist Jay Gottlieb does the composer great service with some highly expressive and cognisant interpretations of some at times very difficult music on a technical level.

Obouhow (Obhukov) deserves our attention. This is a great place to start. I am certainly looking forward to his works in the orchestral realm!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Jane Antonia Cornish, Duende, and Other Chamber Works

Not everything is written in stone, my old boss used to say. The world might behave day-to-day like it were, but then you compare one day with another and you see that there have been changes. It is as true of the music world as any other of our worlds.

When I grew up modernism was king. Many people didn't like or understand it out there but nonetheless it dominated the new music scene. As I got older minimilism challenged the dominance and now there is a post-style that goes beyond either but takes in some of what preceded. That doesn't mean that there once again is a dominant style. There are pluralities. I've said this before but it's worth reconsidering as we sample new composers, like the one up for discussion today, Jane Antonia Cornish.

She is English, still rather young judging from the photos. She gives us three of her chamber works on Duende (Delos).

The first, the title work "Duende", scored for piano trio, combines an archaic sounding chord progression that for various lengths of time repeats a la Arvo Part and features ornamentation and other melodic materials that overlay the progression sometimes in a way like the ancient "La Folia" variations by Couperin or others. But the passagework that sounds over the progression differs from a typical baroque and pre-baroque treatment by alternating between a concerted way (in the strings), a more whimsical way in the piano's role, where the embellishments are tonal and extra-tonal, and finally, a third way. This latter has the implication of the progression, an allusion to it without its actual presence except in residues, residuals.

It's a very captivating piece that bounces between progression, concerted passagework, and mysterium. The title refers to a Garcia-Lorca concept of duende "as a metaphor for the search of artistic essence through the trinity of the poet, muse and angel," as liner writer Brett Banducci puts it.

The string quartet "In Luce (Into the Light)" uses another progression and works the music around it in similar ways.

The duo for violin and piano "Clair-Obscur" centers around yet another progression integral to the unfolding of the work. The concerted-cadenza violin part works against the piano part in ways that perhaps at times are more directly contrastive to some of the preceding music in the work. But then paradoxically or eclectically there are passages where the relationship of violin to piano is virtuoso-against-chordal in ways somewhat more traditional.

It's music that remains exploratory while also sounding quite agreeable to those who want consonance to sound in their ears as much as possible.

In the end we have three works very well played by all concerned, that extend and make personal the Part archaic-in-modern ethos. It is a pleasure to hear Ms. Cornish's chamber music. The music provides delight. If you like Part this will certainly appeal.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Satoshi Tanaka, Works for Piano, Satoko Inoue

Satoshi Tanaka, Japanese Composer born in the '50s and still very much with us, is not a name I have come across before. Tanaka's Works for Piano solo (EMEC Discos E-112) provides us with a good hour of music, as performed by Satoko Inoue.

Sometimes you get the music, a cover and little else if you receive music in download form. A web search turned up nil. So I have nothing to go on here except my ears.

The music, seven works in all, is quiet in the manner of Morton Feldman. The tonality is loosely chromatic, tied to a key but tenuously. Unlike Feldman's later work there is no obvious pattern of repetition, which of course is fine. Instead we have a linear progression of unfolding, sparse melody, which strikes me as somewhat mystical, perhaps a bit Zen-like in its revelling in the sensuous sound moments in succession.

Pianist Satoko Inoue gives us a sensitive reading. The music haunts our sensibilities and then is gone. We are left with a feeling of peace, but not with a new ager's attempt to force that peace upon us. This music has authentic sensibilities. If you love Feldman this will be in your wheelhouse. It revels in understatement. I would love to hear more of Satoshi Tanaka! Recommended.

Monday, May 5, 2014

John Cage, Works for Two Keyboards 2, Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo

John Cage (1912-1992) wrote music for piano that changed the face of the modern scene. There are so many landmark works in this realm that the mind boggles a little. Of course the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-48) were the breakthrough works that established him--and all that followed most certainly sustained his reputation as one of the most remarkable composers for that instrument in the last century.

There is an embarrassment of riches, a wealth of works to explore if you have the time and patience. It pays off. A great place to start is the recording just out and up today: the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo play Works for Keyboard Volume 2 (Naxos 8.559727).

I missed Volume 1 but if it is anything like the current volume it is well worth your trouble. Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer gave us a stellar version of Stockhausen's Mantra a few years ago, which I covered in the Gapplegate Music Blog on October 25, 2010--see I have also had the pleasure of hearing and reviewing Xenia Pestova's Shadow Piano (see the March 24th, 2014 posting on this site). The two recordings led me to anticipate the duo's Cage and disappointed I am not!

The Volume 2 has a nice mix of early and later Cage. We are treated to versions of his "Music for Two" (1984/87) and "Three Dances" (1945), the latter for prepared pianos. The two works offer a contrast and a good encapsulated feel for Cage's transformations in sound and concept over time.

The prepared piano suite has the motor impulses of a percussion orchestra creating highly rhythmic music for dance. Comparisons have been made between this music (and those Cage works similar to it) and Balinese Gamelan, which is by no means a stretch. The Pestova/Meyer Duo wisely approach the suite as if it were music for percussion ensemble. There is no place for rubato or other extra-rhythmic expressive devices that come out of conventional pianism and they do not attempt to utilize any of it. They also tend to take their tempos a little slower than on some versions I have heard, to better interact and create a rhythmic leverage in keeping with the intentions of the composer. They do a great job. They make it all rock-steady, make it "swing" so to speak. I've heard others that have tended to rush and/or sometimes interfere with the all-critical pulsation, but not here.

Cage's "Music for Two" is a part of an ambitious series of compositions Cage never quite completed. He wanted to create a work that could be performed by any number of instruments, each with a part to add if they were participating. He started with a version for two pianos as heard here, then eventually parts for 15 other instruments.

The two-piano version is a study in contrasts. Bowing notes inside the piano, isolated notes, clusters of notes, legato, staccato, and spaces in between act as a kind of Zen rock garden meditation in sound. Pestova/Meyer do the music perfect justice, creating a magical aura that on repeated listens has a very evocative vibe about it.

These are some of the most inspired performances I've heard of Cage for piano. And I've listened intently to a lot of it. Pestova/Meyer triumph! Do not hesitate. If you don't know Cage well this is an ideal volume to begin explorations. If you are a confirmed Cage adept this is an affirmation. Spellbinding!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Max Reger, Orchestral Works, Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, 3-CD Set

There is something enigmatic about Max Reger (1873-1916). Part of it no doubt surrounds his rather vast output as a composer, works in all sizes, shapes and varieties. That and the fact that he died rather young, not reaching his mid-forties before succombing in 1916. Of course this has happened before--to Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn, none of whom we find enigmatic in the obvious sense.

But Reger was on the very cusp of a major revolution in that the modernist sensibilities of the age had yet to set themselves up in any cohesive all-encompassing way when he passed. Whether he would have taken major steps in that direction will never be known. But the Reger we are fortunate enough to have left to us and posterity is nonetheless a towering figure with at least two sides to him. One the unabashed romantic, the other a neo-classicist before that term was in vogue. His chamber pieces that owe something to the example of Bach, such as the unaccompanied violin sonatas, come to mind for the latter.

It may be that I just have not pursued the possibility over the years, but I must say I have not familiarized myself with his orchestral works to any great extent. So I was glad to get a review copy of the new 3-CD set by Leif Segerstam and the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra performing selected Orchestral Works (BIS 9047 3-CDs). During his lifetime these were at least in part the works that made his very positive reputation in Europe. And so I have immersed myself in the three disks for several weeks now and emerge to give my impressions.

There are seven major works represented on the set, far more than one can digest in a short timespan, and so I will not attempt a blow-by-blow analysis. What strikes me throughout however is his original voice. The strictly romantic works, such as his Piano Concerto in F minor, op. 110 do not sound derivative. He is fully inventive and structurally rigorous there. But it is the neo-classic influenced works that especially intrigue me, the "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, op 86" and his "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, op. 132" that especially get my attention.

They somehow manage to synthesize the late romantic fullness of feeling with the need to create and re-create inventions with the structured sensibilities of the earlier composers.

All in all however there is much to appreciate, from the flourish and passion of "Vier Tondichtungen nach Arnold Bocklin, op 128" to the lyrical sensuousness of "Suite im Alten Stil, op 93".

Here is where Max Reger was in his full development. We may regret that he did not live to achieve a complete synthesis of where he was headed, but we get nicely performed versions of some formidable music.

If you want a good idea of the orchestral mastery of the fully mature Max Reger, here is where you will find it. It is music to hear repeatedly, to study fruitfully in depth by close listening.

And so I do recommend this one highly.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Jocelyn Morlock, Cobalt

One cannot afford to ignore Canada's music scene. It continues to be vital. One of the bright lights up there is young composer Jocelyn Morlock, as can be heard in her new program of compositions Cobalt (Centrediscs 20014). On it we get a judicious sampling of two of her chamber works and five orchestral outings. We have come across her music before: a work performed by the Vancouver chamber group Couloir in a review posted last February 7th.

Ms. Morlock works in a modern tonal vein, with strongly key-centered works that tend often not to modulate but then do not feature a great deal of repetition either. Nor is the music in exactly a radical tonality vein. The music is sometimes elaborately ornate in its central melodic parts. On occasion there is a noticeable affinity with Arvo Part. Sometimes there is almost a drone-like harmonic rootedness that reminds slightly of Indo-Pak classical, other times it's more neo-classical in a post-modern way. All of it is engaging.

There are some programmatic elements to the works that will surely help Ms. Morlock capture a wider audience. "Music from the Romantic Era" features quotations and supportive passagework that suggest a playful approach to re-presenting the era. The music goes backwards in a way, starting with cadences and working to themes.

"Cobalt" epitomizes the color in nature and the toxic substance that has been used to produce the color in pigmentation.

"Asylum" deals with the troubled life of Robert Schumann. The piece begins with the first four piano notes of "Mondnacht" played as if in slow motion. "Oiseaux bleus et sauvages" is about summer and birdsong.

And so on. The works are played by a number of orchestras and some fine chamber players and come off well in the hands of all. I most certainly found the music lively, beautiful at times and always engaging.

Jocelyn Morlock is one to watch! This CD shows her very much in a budding and blooming mode.