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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Komitas, Piano and Chamber Music, Mikael Ayrapetyan, Vladimir Sergeev

Komitas (aka Komitas Vardapet) (1869-1935) was Armenia's principal composer of the modern period. Khatchaturian may be better known, but then he was as much Russian as Armenian in style. Komitas thrives on a recent release of his Piano and Chamber Music (Grand Piano 720). The music has a strong traditional Armenian identity, minor-modal in its special way.

Mikael Ayrapetyan takes the piano chair and acquits himself well on the solo piano works, which consist of "Seven Folk Dances" (1916), "Twelve Children's Pieces Based On Folk-Themes" (1910), Misho-Shoror" (1906), and the World Premier recording of "Seven Songs for Piano" (1911). Vladimir Sergeev joins on violin for the World Premier of "Seven Pieces for Violin and Piano" (1906).

Komitas had humble origins as the son of artisan parents in Turkey, He early on distinguished himself as a singer. In his subsequent tutelage as a seminary student he became familiar with ancient Armenian chant, hymns and folksong heritage. He was ordained as a monk and went on to compose the works that we remember him by. The Ottoman pogram against Armenians so unhinged him that he ended up in a psychiatric hospital where he resided until his death in 1935.

Like Bartok and Khachaturian he envisioned the national folk legacy of his people as a vast repository of  cultural value and sought to create pedagogical works for children as well as more complex art music works that deeply reflected on folk elements.

The album at hand gives us a well chosen sample of both kinds of works, the "Twelve Children's Pieces" standing on one end of the spectrum, the "Seven Pieces for Violin and Piano" at the other.

It is a program of great beauty, well played. Anyone who loves Armenian music (perhaps via the music of Hovhaness) will gladly appreciate this one, as well as anyone interested in folk inspired modern classical. It is a real treasure!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Robert Schumann, Carnaval, Fantasie, Chi-Chen Wu

Some solo piano works have been so ubiquitous, so often performed, that it takes a pianist with a different vision to shake you out of the near torpor you may experience. Of course there are often enough excellent reasons why a work is so widely played and heard. Still, it takes something special to wake you up. That is the case with pianist Chi-Chen Wu's recent recording of Robert Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9 and Fantasie, Op. 17 (Musica Omnia 0705). We've encountered Ms. Wu before as the pianist on Schumann's Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano (see review on these pages for March 1, 2016). She most impressively established her Schumann interpretive credentials on that disk.

Tackling the "Carnaval" and "Fantasia" is something perhaps more of a challenge. So many notable and well-endowed pianists have gone there before. What can be left to say?  They could be played still louder, still faster, or still slower, with still more rubato, all that I suppose. What would be the point? Chi-Chen Wu has all the technical endowment one would expect for a successful rendition of these repertoire staples. Yet the emphasis is not on dazzling the hearer with fireworks.

Instead Ms. Wu gives us a very focused vision of Schumann by getting everything exactly right, and doing so in a most musical manner. There is a requisite passion, yes, but it is harnessed to the harmonic-melodic sequence with perhaps a slightly more Apollonian core than has been standard practice. Not that the renditions are cold, far from it. They are poised, balanced, emotive but precise.

I would venture to say that this disk is an example of Schumann's Schumann. It very much zeroes in on the notes themselves, singingly and surgingly, but never as a kind of spectacle.

It is an example of a more classicistic reading of Romantic piano, perhaps. For that is shows us Chi-Chen Wu the powerful yet centered pianist devoting great care to bringing alive the music. Less so the gesture of its realization. It brings us out of Van Cliburnian-Liberace-esque showmanship, brings us closer to the source.

Bravo! Warmly recommended.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Kevin Raftery, Chamber Music, Heath Quartet, Animare Ensemble, Berkeley Ensemble

A new post takes us into the creative musical mind of living US-born composer Kevin Raftery. Chamber Music (Metier 28569) walks us through some meticulous and committed performances of four of his works, all highly advanced harmonically and expressive in a lineage that goes back to Alban Berg in its affective qualities yet manages to convey a very personal take on classic high modernism.

Like Ives he composes and at the same time has had a foot in the commercial world, as a Project Manager. He nowadays sings in the new music oriented London Chamber Choir, plays bassoon professionally and is Music Director of the Richmond Concert Society.

His opening "String Quartet No. 1" (2012) was written in memory of his friend Richard Oake, whose love of the string quartet was so pronounced that Raftery decided to plunge into a quartet of his own, even though he previous had avoided it because of those many masterpieces in the idiom and the idea to follow with another work seemed pretentious. Raftery holds his own however, with a highly developed presence, a kind of elegiac revery contrasting with a dramatic dynamic emotive stridency that is very nicely realized by the Heath Quartet.

From there we go on to two works well played by members of the Berkeley Ensemble. "First Companion" (2012) calls for clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello; "Pleasantries" (2011) is for oboe/English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon. Both combine seriousness of purpose with a kind of whimsicality, movingly so.

The "'Friedhof ' Quintet" (2011) is perhaps the most stunning and introspective-expressive. For flute, harp, violin, viola and cello, it revels in the possibilities of the instrumentation to haunting results. The Animare Ensemble brings the music to life in glowing ways. The instrumentation and its handling lends itself to a sort of post-impressionist delicacy and fragility that stays in the mind and created a hushed mood of expectation that delivers its profound content with absolute candor.

There is beauty and character to these works. Raftery shows himself as a gifted exponent of high modernist chamber art. I come away from this program impressed and rewarded. Anyone with a liking for the intimacy of the chamber form and the sophistication of the classic modern expansiveness should readily take to this music as I have.

Very recommended.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Transient Canvas, Sift, Amy Advocat, Matt Sharrock

Some music just lays right from the first hearing. Further listens fill in the details and yet the initial impression sticks with you. I feel this way about the duo Transient Canvas and their album Sift (New Focus FCR 190). It is a full length recital showcasing the bass clarinet work of Amy Advocat and the marimba of Matt Sharrock. The two instruments together make for a deep and rich sonance realized especially well by the fine artistry of the two.

Five new music composers contribute one composition each. You may or may not know of these craftsperson-artists. It does not matter because each has something to say and brings out the color and dramatic potentialities of  the instrumentation.

Each work embodies a literal intent. The respective composer explains what that is in the liners. I paraphrase here. The title piece"Sift" (2014) by Daniel T. Lewis puts in musical terms what remains of a resolve when long subjected to struggle, and the exhaustion and collapse that can follow. Tina Tallon's "Dirty Water" (2014/16) is her tribute to Boston and an allusion to but not quotation from the Standells' old pop-rock hit.

Chris Hughes and his "Vestibule III" (2013) comes to grips with an ever shifting transition between contrasting stylistic worlds, something all who follow new music modernism in its current incarnation can sense as part of where we are now.

John Murphree's "Purge" (2013) creates in analogic musical terms a casting out of what once was or even still is important.

The longest and perhaps most ambitious of the works concludes the program, namely Adam Roberts' "Nostalgic Variations" (2015). It contains within the main theme and its variants a middle path between "saccharine expression" and on the opposite pole "irony and rejection of emotion."

The experience of the music itself understandably transcends or deepens the impact of any given composer's intent. This is contemporary music that neither rejects a modernist stance nor does it replace it with something wholly other. It is a series of cogent and fascinating vehicles that allow the duo and their very singular instrumentation to flourish and establish an immediate present-day identity. It is in the process a very absorbing and even exhilarating program all new music adepts will gravitate towards appreciatively, I would think.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Boyd Meets Girl, Rupert Boyd, Laura Metcalf, Music for Cello and Guitar

Two artists of stature, a mix of the contemporary modern and the classic, that is what goes into Boyd Meets Girl (Sono Luminus 92217).  It is a sort of cute, flip title that presaged to me something light. However the music is delightfully presented, much more than a bonbon between meals. (Not that anyone I know eats bonbons.Yet get the point.) It is weighty without being insistently so. This way it can provide atmosphere or a good deal more if you listen seriously.

The Boyd is classical guitarist Rupert Boyd. The "Girl" is cellist Laura Metcalf. Both have a beautiful sound and the technique to match. And the blend of the two makes for a special confluence.

It is the brightly variegated repertoire that helps make the program especially pleasurable. We have more or less lesser-known contemporary works in Jaime Zenamon's "Reflexoes No. 6," Ross Edwards' "Arafura Arioso," Radames Gnattali's "Allegretto Comodo." Then there are the more familiar Astor Piazzolla "Cafe 1930: and Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel."

And then for the more venerable classic side we have four of Bach's "Two-Part Inventions," Faure's "Pavanne, Op. 50," de Falla's "Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas." And to cap it all off there is an arrangement of Michael Jackson's song "Human Nature."

It is the artistry of the two that ultimately makes this program stand out, that and the Boyd-Metcalfe arrangements for guitar and cello (as applicable) and the open-ended adventure of the program itself.

If you have expectations about the wonderful sound of cello and classical guitar together, they are met with absolute style and grace in the twin sonarities of Boyd and Metcalfe. More than met, really. Boyd Meets Girl is one of those fortunate intersection where we hear bells as much as they do.

A program that will appeal to a wide swath of listeners. It will do so with artistry at the highest levels. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Emile Sauret, 24 Etudes-Caprices, Op. 64 Vol. 1 (Nos. 1-7), Nazrin Rashidova

Of the sum of unaccompanied solo violin works, those of Emile Sauret (1854-1920) are among the lesser known to the layman appreciator.  He was one of the greatest and most renowned violin virtuoso of his time. He left behind a Violin Concerto, some character pieces and some technical exercises, the most involved musically of which are the 24 Etudes-Caprices, Op. 64. Nazrin Rashidova apparently is in the process of recording them all. The first volume, covering Nos. 1-7, has recently appeared (Naxos 8.573704).

These are alternately highly demanding, then highly lyrical rhapsodic works, owing as much or more to the tradition of a Paganini as to a Bach. They are in all 24 keys, Nazrin Rashidova tackles them with heroic passion and exactitude, with a beautiful tone and satisfying idiomatic flare.

The Etudes-Caprices were published in 1902  They were dedicated to Sauret's violin student Marjorie Hayward, who had studied with him since she was 12 years old and was only 17 at the time of its publication. The pieces show no doubt his appreciation of her potential through the care that is put into each exercise.

Needless to say these are much more than mere pedagogic vehicles. There is a complexity and expressive beauty to these Etudes that make them excellent listening some 115 years later.

Ms. Rashidova brings us a ravishing interpretation for a most enjoyable program. Recommended.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Doug Bielmeier, Betty and the Sensory World, Experimental Electronic Music

The world of electronic/electroacoustic music these days is open-ended and vast in possibilities. One of the most striking recent examples comes from US composer Doug Bielmeier. Betty and the Sensory World (Ravello 7972) is a set of seven interrelated movements that play upon the richly expressive sonic worlds of drone and harmonic overtone timbers that have an extraordinary beauty, a hugely ambient, ever shifting expressive, hypnotic quality.

If my listening mind recalls the organic unity of some of Iannis Xenakis' electroacoustic environments of earlier days, perhaps it is no fluke. After all, Bielmeier studied composition with Robert Carl, himself a student of Xenakis. What may have been influential in Bielmeier's approach is so thoroughly internalized that what we appreciate in Betty feels wholly original.

At times one hears affective harmonic melodic sequences that might have come from the mind of late Mahler, had he been alive today and a practitioner of the electronic arts. But at the same time and at all times there is such a rich unfolding of ambient sound panoramas, each cluster of timbres evolving and encompassing the listener with an orchestral depth and nearly unspeakable beauty. In that way we experience timbral development as much or more than melodic-harmonic development. A sensual attention to timbre as an unfolding,  secret inner world Indian music masters have long practiced. . . sound as richly representative of deity. Bielmeier does that in his own way.

It is a music that gets an initial impetus from sustained, altered resonances, an unparalleled sonic design  that is then subjected to development and permutation. Each movement grows within itself so that the development is never into a completely "other" soundscape, is not variational in any post-Darmstadtian way, but rather hypnotically static yet ever moving within itself. There is no feeling of a minimalism per se so much as an organicity of internal presence that rivets the listener through a natural world kind of difference and sameness in dialectic balance.

I come away from this CD knowing that Betty and the Sensory World is one of the more profound electroacoustic works I have heard in a long time. Anyone who reads this will I believe be very moved by an immersion in its enchanted world. If you can dream lovely dreams, you can enter this music in the same spirit.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Edge of Time, Paleolithic Bone Flutes of France & Germany, Anna Friederike Potengowski, Georg Wieland Wagner

The idea of the archaic and new music rub shoulders on The Edge of Time, Paleolithic Bone Flutes of France & Germany (Delphian 34185). On it Anna Friederike Potengowski plays a number of reproductions of bird bone and ivory flutes discovered at sites in France and Germany. The original finds hail from the Paleolithic, some 40,000 years ago. They represent the earliest direct evidence of humanity as a music-making animal. What the music sounded like we cannot know, of course.

Flautist Anna Friederike Potengowski has learned to play four reconstructions of the flutes, working intuitively with the instruments to develop a well-conceived playing technique. She is joined by percussionist George Wieland Wagner for a number of compositions the two have assembled around the flute and percussion possibilities, plus an improvisation or two and a composition by John Cage and one by Rupert Till.

The resultant music, by imagining a distant dawn of music, is a mysterious meld of sophisticated primitivism as new music. That John Cage's "Ryoanji" does not sound out of place among these works tells us much, that a primality clears us from the residue of 1000 years of classical tradition and jettisons us forward into a kind of rediscovery of our putative roots.

The flute work by Potengowski involves a technical triumph, plays upon the complex sonic possibilities inherent in the deceptively simple constructions of wood and bone. And who is to say she is wrong to put so much artistry into the playing? We cannot know how good any given Paleolithic flautist might have been. And in the end it does not matter.

What does matter of course is the music as it speaks to us. It is a creative winner on all counts, varied and haunting. There is nothing quite like it.

You with a sense of adventure would do well to hear this one. It is simultaneously a meditation on our origins and a music very much of today. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Beth Levin, Bright Circle, Piano Music by Schubert, Brahms, Del Tredici

Any confirmed classical music listener will have at least some works she or he has heard over time often and in more than one performance (in the recorded medium), and perhaps in concert as well. When faced with a new version, the older ones one has heard inevitably stand in comparison to the one you are hearing. That is true for me of two of the three works contained in pianist Beth Levin's Bright Circle (Navona 6074).

The very much acclaimed earlier works are the ones I refer to: Schubert's "Piano Sonata No. 20, D.959" and Brahms's "Variations and Fugue on a Theme By Handel, Op. 24." The Schubert is especially an old favorite. I revel in the special Schubertian ringing melodic and harmonic brilliance, as many do. I have a few rather Viennese versions on LP. Those tend to be more spacious and glimmering in their lyricism. Then there are the showcase pianists who make of it a technical marvel. Beth Levin splits the difference in a way, not ignoring the bravura dramatics nor de-emphasizing the melodic beauty,

Johannes Brahms' "Variations and Fugue on a Theme By Handel, Op. 24" is one of the monumental theme and variation sets of its time, a wealth of contrasting treatments of Handel's theme that challenges the pianist to coopt the technical demands in the service of the extraordinary variational eloquence. Beth Levin once again finds a way to underscore the musical drama of each movement with interpretive clarity and passion, while in this case expressing fully the majestic wholeness of the music.

The final performance centers around David Del Tredici and his"Ode to Music," which is based on Del Tredeci's original arrangement of Schubert's An die Musik for wind quintet. This is its ultimate re-expression for solo piano. The piece as thought through by Levin serves as a fitting close for this program.

In the end we have some very personal and ultra-musical pianistic poeticism from Beth Levin. She neither seeks to steal the show with eccentric visions of these wonderful pieces, nor does she disappear in the telling of the musical narrative. The interpretations do not wear the emotions on the sleeve as much as channel content and affect for the sensibilities of our present-day selves. That is a tightrope walk that not everyone can pull off and still be themselves. Ms. Levin triumphs in doing just that.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Anthony Paul de Ritis, Pop Concerto, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The spectrum of styles to be had in the hands of talented present-day composers is pretty vast. Anthony Paul de Ritis exemplifies a modern tonal postmodernism, inventive well orchestrated music we can hear productively in his recent release Pop Concerto (BMOP Sound 1051). It consists of his "Pop Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra" (2014) plus three additional works, as played with relish and verve by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose.

This is music minus the usual repetition of minimalism, yet there still is a working through of motives and a sort of variational lucidity that moves away from rapid looping and regains horizontal developmental trajectories in keeping with modern tonal stances. There is ever a rhythmic vitality to this music, a factor that gives it all a very contemporary edge and alludes in part to rock-pop forms.

That is most pronounced, understandably, in the title work "Pop Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra" featuring Eliot Fisk on acoustic guitar. The music in each of the four movements is based foundationally around a rock-pop song of note. Namely "Bring it On" by Seal, Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," "Beautiful Day" by U2, and "The Way You Make Me Feel" by Michael Jackson. The key to the success aesthetically of this concerto is the reworking of the song material and the inventive quality of the solo guitar part. The final results are far more than a simple arranging of song material to fit an orchestral-guitar solo idiom. There is on display a thorough conceptual rigor and flow that brings it above an arrangement and into new compositional territory.

The bonus works extended our appreciation of the composer's originality. "Amsterdam" (2004) is a tour de force showpiece for orchestra that reminds of Michael Torke's orchestral work, gives us a kind of modern-day equivalent and springboarding off of Aaron Copland, yet makes strides in an original direction.

"Riflessioni" (2014) enters more complex labyrinthian depths of orchestral complexity with mysterioso darkness and heightened expressionist syntax for both solo bassoon (Patrick de Ritis) and full ensemble. It is the more modernist of the works to be heard in the program, and perhaps a bit more esoteric-serious-moody than the others.

Finally there is "Ballet" (1997/2013) featuring the two piano Duo X88 (Vicky Chow and Saskia Lankhoorn), a substantial 20-minute work. It is slightly more "radically tonal" perhaps than the others, with a forward momentum like "Amsterdam" yet also a sort of quasi-pentatonic-modal cascading flow running parallel inside of the rhythm..

de Ritis leaves me with a firm conviction that he has managed to come up with a new synthesis that is original and definable in personal terms. It is well healed, sonically mapped music with much to recommend it.

I strongly favor this one.