Search This Blog

Friday, March 23, 2018

Ligeti, Complete Etudes, Kei Takumi

One of the giants of Modernism, Gyorgy Ligeti is the kind of titan whose every work probably should be heard. Yet I have to admit there are many I have not as of yet. His Etudes Pour Piano (Sheva Collection 183) seems as good an example as any of a part of Ligeti that one should know. In this complete recording pianist Kei Takumi tackles these technically daunting works head-on. And with Ligeti, ever, no notes are there for no reason. The difficulties are put in front of the performer ever for a musical result. It is a great credit to Kei Takumi that he sees in the masses of black notes a way they must be sounded for energetic, expressionistic significance. And he handles the quiet, contrasting sections with sensitivity and proper intent.

The Etudes consist of three groupings: A Premier livre (1984-85), a Deuxieme livre (1988-94) and a Troisieme livre (1995-2001). Together they function as a wide interconnected expanse, densely racing ahead, then thoughtfully pausing, then bursting forward again, creating a matrix of dynamic excitement one simply has to experience because words cannot supplant or ever quite approximate how it feels to hear the music. It is a kind of Promethean struggle of solitary  human with an otherwise inert mass of wood, metal, ivory and whatever else, the piano being something of vast potential that Ligeti provides a key to, the mastery of which is formidable and not for the untalented and technically unprepared. This is music that will not be sight read with any hope of the revelatory. It is music to sink into over a long period of time. That is as true for the performer as it is to the listener. You do not just throw this music on and go about your business. That surely won't do.

Instead, pay attention. Let the sounds wash over you and after a few listens you will know that you are in the presence of something profound. I recommend you do that.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Martinu, Saltimbanques, Songs 5, Jana Hrochova, Giorgio Koukl

One surprising thing about the songs of Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). They show a very different side of the composer as compared with, say, his orchestral works. I have reviewed volumes in the song series on Naxos (type his name in the search box above) and now there is a fifth, Saltimbanques, Songs 5 (Naxos 8.573823). Mezzo-Soprano Jana Hrochova and pianist Giorgio Koukl do the honors on this volume, and they sound just right for it all.

What this volume has in abundance, as much or even more so than the Volume 4 I reviewed here, is an intimate Martinu that is modern yet almost completely outside of the Martinu style of his larger ensemble pieces. The music is more direct and at times very Eastern European-Czech folk oriented.

Some of the music here is quite rare, unrecorded, some believed lost until recently. None of it is ephemeral or ancillary. And it brings to us a Martinu we may not know well, but in its unpretentious way is essential, as essential as the more famous and spectacular works.

Get this if you value Martinu.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Piano a Deux, France Revisited, Music by Onslow, Debussy, Poulenc

What makes French music "French"? Is there something in common between the music of Rameau, say, and that of Messiaen? It is almost a ridiculous question since there is so much music that has been created by French composers over the years that it is too much to expect it all to conform to some hypothetical model. Yet one thing one might make note of is the the lyricism of much of the music--a lyricism that is never quite Romantic in some Germanic way, even with someone like Berlioz? Yes, I generally think that.

This morning for my blog discussion I have a program of French works by the Piano a Deux group, namely Robert and Linda Ang Stoodley, entitled France Revisited (Divine Art 25132). The works featured are not especially standard fare, all being music for four hands at one piano with the exception of one piece, which is for two-handed piano solo.

The inclusion of two works by George Onslow (1784-1853) is as unexpected as it is rewarding. He wrote an extraordinary amount of chamber music including 36 String Quartets and 34 String Quintets! The "Sonata for Piano Four-hands, No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 7" is masterful and strong, and the "Six Pieces Pour Piano (solo)" is a charming set of miniatures that compels and beguiles.  These are revelatory, showing us a mature Onslow that has a sprawling lyricism, almost Schubertian in scope.

Claude Debussy's "Petite Suite" and Francois Poulenc's "Chansons de l'Amour et de la Guerre," the latter as arranged for piano four-hands by Linda Ang Stoodle, are beautiful works very well played here.

Piano a Deux have a remarkable fluidity and togetherness which make them a delight to hear. The Onslow works are a real find; the Poulenc and Debussy as well played as any versions I have heard. All told France Revisited  gives us a unexpected joy as we hear! Recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Society for New Music, Music Here & Now

Of New Music there is no end. This is how of course it should be in a healthy music world. Today we have the chance to consider a volume of  seven new works by seven composers that many of us know little about.  It is brought to us by the Society for New Music. The two-CD set is aptly titled Music Here & Now (Innova 970). By anthologizing this series of World Premier Recordings the Society gives us a feeling for some of what is new in New Music spheres. As we sometimes see now, there are many composers out there working within tonalities. It is a given in Pomo avenues. How that works out can be tremendously varied, as the music on this anthology attests.

There is to be heard in this set jazz influences, a shade of beyond-Minimalism, Neo-Classicism, and Modern laced adventures that bring some of last century's experimentations into newly codified terrains. Rhythm in a forward moving way is another element you can hear nicely as a salient aspect of some of these works.

Performances are of a uniformly high caliber. Sufficient rehearsal time has been put into every work. The final recordings are vigorous and tender or contemplative as called for. Nothing is lacking in the performers. Smaller to larger chamber orchestra configurations are the rule.

There are internationalist elements to be heard too, without that being a central focus.

So we hear in succession Rob Deemer's "Cantos," Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon's "Jacaras," Gregory Wanamaker's "Music from a Story Within a Story," Zhou Tien's "Morning After the Deluge," Jorge Villavicencio Grossman's "Whistling Vessels," 'Doctuh' Mike Woods's "Libations," and Mark Olivieri's "Concertino: Stress Test."

Multiple hearings confirm the music as consistently well wrought and interestingly moving. Take the plunge with this one and you will doubtless  gain another perspective on what is new out there. New and excitingly so.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Susan Kander, Hermestanze

We carry on in life day in and day out. New people come into our center focus. Others leave. Unfamiliar composers can surprise us. Susan Kander is the latest of the latter. She is from the USA. Seemingly thriving. MSR sent me a CD of three World Premier Recordings of her music. Hermestanze (MSR 1578) is the title, named after the longest and perhaps most involved work of the three. A common thread throughout is the violin (and viola) work of Jacob Ashworth who sounds beautiful here. Joining him are pianist Lee Dionne and Jessica Petrus, soprano. All are dedicated to drawing out the rich subtleties of Kander's music, which is extremely well put-together and inspired, in a sort of Modern Neo-Classical vein.

There is depth and poise to the music. The half-hour opus "Hermestanze" (2013) for violin and piano forms the most remarkable of the three works, filled with intricate beauty. There is no direct similarity but one nonetheless recalls Stravinsky and Hindemith. There is a definite twist in form however that sets this work apart. In the tradition of earlier composers such as Schumann, the music is conceived of as a song cycle, in this case for violin and piano. 13 discrete yet interrelated song-like movements grace our ears, with a reprise of "Hermes, Messenger of the Gods" at the conclusion. This is no Neo-Romanticism in spite of the roots of the form. It is decidedly Modern and Classically balanced in the best ways. Jacob Ashworth commissioned the work and gives it definitive form. Lee Dionne makes an ideal partner for the performance. It is superb music, superbly played.

The "Solo Sonata" (2002) (with Ashworth on violin in the outer movements, viola in the middle) has the seriousness of purpose of similar works by Bartok, Reger and Hindemith. The imaginative and idiomatic use of violinistic articulations (such as double stops and harmonics) and a combination of momentum and moodiness mark Kander out as a worthy successor to the 20th century masters of such configurations.

"A Garden's Time Piece" (2011) is based on the poetry of Leslie Lasky. It has an introspective, contemplative air about it and a touchingly sparse demeanor thanks to Kanders well conceived parts. Ashworth's violin is the sole accompaniment to Jessica Petrus and her movingly sweet soprano voice. The nicely articulated performance and the considerable charm of the music win the day if you take the time to listen closely.

Susan Kander has genuine torque as a fully accomplished voice on the Modern scene. Get this one if a new wrinkle on Neo-Classicist New Music appeals. If you do not know whether that is so for you or not listen carefully and you may well be convinced that Kander is worth hearing and a welcome original exponent today.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Matteo Liberatore, Solos

For where the electric and acoustic guitar is today in New Music-Improv worlds, you can give yourself a real leg up on things by listening to the music of Matteo Liberatore, in a recent album simply entitled Solos (Innova 985). Elliot Sharp, the preset-day artist and curatorial champion of advanced guitar realms, did the remixing and mastering, and his involvement is telling, since his selfless and insightful sponsorship has been central of late in a series of guitar showcases for the very new realms on Clean Feed, I've Never Meta Guitar. (See my Gapplegate Guitar Blog for review articles. The link to that site is located in the column to the right.)

Liberatore makes very varied and imaginative use of tunings, preparations, and both conventional and unusual sounding techniques for the twelve solo interludes on this CD. Hammering on the strings with objects, bowing, cycles of picking arpeggiation, scraping, rubbing,  striking and plucking at once, glissandi, open strings along with stops, harmonics, etc.

Each composition is rather improvisatory in that it realizes a particular way to sound the guitar in a way that has immediacy. Some seem overtly, compositionally structural; others are free-flowing sound color realizations. All have in their own way a striking sonance, a special sound universe, all seem like soundtracks to some heightened state of being. Not all interludes are completely tabula rasa in terms of extended techniques. It all however holds together as a suite of musically vibrant works.

Beyond and aside from the rather ingenious ways the guitar is rethought with the various extended techniques of which Matteo makes very creative use, the music fascinates on its own. Bravo!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Miya Masaoka, Triangle of Resistance

There is a great deal more New Music coming out of different shades of stylistic distinctness now than there might have been in, say, 1972. For composer Miya Masaoka, there is a High Modern stance that nestles welcomingly in a post serialist, post-pointillist, post-bleep-bloop manner of proceeding; that is on the two works contained on the recent album Triangle of Resistance (Innova 945).

The title work is the more ambitious and memorable of the two. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of seven instrumentalists including koto (played by the composer), plus string quartet, percussion and synthesizer. It was written in remembrance and protest against the internment of Japanese-Americans in the US during WWII. "The Long Road," "The Clattering of Life," and "Survival" are the respectve titles of the three movements. The music portrays the  uprootedness, suffering and upheaval of sudden and tragic displacement as it must have felt to the victims. The music has a muted anguish and an outspoken expressiveness to it consistent with the subject matter.

The second work, "Four Moons of Pluto" is written for solo contrabass. The music involves the shifting vortex of a number of heightened resonance positions via harmonic partials and enhancements gained by detuning strings. The work seeks an analogy between the movement of planetary bodies and the movement of small number ratioed intervals.

All in all we have two provocative and relatively stunning aural explorations that most New Music appreciators will likely find interesting and worthwhile. Listen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Altius Quartet, Shostakovich, String Quartets 7, 8 & 9

Shostakovich during his eventful life wrote 15 String Quartets. They have long been celebrated as some of the handful of 20th century masterpieces of the idiom for the emotional depth of the music, the exceptional color of the strings and the serious thematic dramatics of the music from first to last. It is music to live with and grow into for an entire lifetime. The serious breadth of the music gives us something to ponder and evolve towards for an eternity. How much can any body of music offer this in a sustained way? The less of it than the more, in the end. So we should treasure what we have so exceptionally in the Shostakovich Quartets.

And as if to forward that the Altius Quartet gives us a new recording of the middle String Quartets 7, 8 & 9 (Navona 6125). There is great thrust in their hearty brio, quiet passages of sensitive probing, affirmations of the complexities and trials of human existence.

The middle quartets are a bellwether in the unfolding excellence of Shostakovich's non-compromising, severe sublimity.The middle quartets are a product of post-WWII trauma and upheaval. It was not a good time to be a Soviet composer. Shostakovich reacted to the troubled times with a challenging set of works exactly the opposite of what was expected of him by State apparachiks.We are so fortunate that he courageously prevailed under such dire circumstances. Would any of our artists today been so courageous to produce works like this under all-too-serious government opposition? Maybe not. Perhaps today such an artist would simply be locked away in an ivory tower and disposed of with a passive-aggressive indifference? That is another situation and one might ask whether that kind of "freedom" is so much better? No answer from me. History will no doubt tell the story better than we can. Too much is at stake now. And we cannot always see what developments are moving us where.

In the end it is these works we remember as enormously significant beacons of  Modern 20th-Century Music.

The Altius Quartet gives us ravishing performances of the three quartets. There is brisk energy and unsentimental, slightly reticent acuity that make these performances stand out.

Are these the best ever renditions of 7. 8 & 9? I would not go so far as to say that. Nonetheless they are vital readings and I am glad to have the CD as an addition to my Shostakovich Quartet standard recordings. A newcomer to these essential works would be well-served too. Highly recommended. The Altius Quartet is a phenomenon!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, The Firebird Suite, David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

There may be no more important work in the rise of Modernism than The Rite of Spring. There perhaps is no more significant pre-Modern precursor than The  Firebird. Both established Stravinsky as one of the titans of our times. And music was never quite the same afterwords. Here 2018 now, more than a century later, and the music sounds as beautifully important as ever. David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in the wake of their rather seminal recording of the Pathetique Symphony (see index for that review) come to us with another worthy offering, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and The Firebird Suite.(Recursive Classics 2058479).

As I sit here and write this post outside my windows are the makings of a soon-to-be-active springtime. Listening to The Rite of Spring again after so much personal and historical water under the bridge makes me wonder to myself. A work, this work brought reactions of horror and shock on the now infamous premiere performance. Audiences rioted. Hear the music today it is difficult to reimagine what the fuss was all about. That is of course much to do with how the music effected the Modern music that came after. Rhythmic drive, some dynamic dissonances, and Stravinsky's beautiful handling of the orchestra as no longer a matter of strings and extras, of course.

Does that truly explain the shock some felt on hearing the music for the first time? No. It is hard to reconstruct. By the time I was a kid Stravinsky was just there, part of what you heard. My very first classical record had on it The Firebird Suite. It seemed like it was made for a kid like me. In 6th grade we watched a slide show depicting the Firebird mytho-poetic sequence while the music played. No, they did not bring in the Rite at that point. And if they did not, it was because of the subject matter more than the musical content I would think. The Art Major Class in high school was it seemed always to be playing the Rite on the portable record player while kids created things. Nobody was shocked. Hardly.

So think of the subject matter.  "Ritual of Abduction," "Mystic Circle of the Young Girls," "Sacrificial Dance." This was a musical primitivism on the surface of things, just as Picasso introduced African Mask imagery into his art around the same time. People were reacting especially to this pre-Christian "savagery" when they rioted, maybe. Not to the music. Suppose Stravinsky had named it "The Hurricane?" That audience might all have cheered at the end.

Needless to say such a "primitive" subject matter hardly phases us today. It poses no threat. No more than Picasso's introduction of exotically "primitive" imagery into his paintings in the years just preceding the premier. It was in the wind there in Paris. It marked a momentus cultural change, of course. Yet it did not mean that Europe had truly "gone native." It was just an incorporation of non-Western, proto-archaic  aspects into the Modern assumption of what was acceptable as subject matter and content.

The music seems so familiar now that it could be profitably heard by virtually anyone of some musical understanding. Years and years of strident horror film soundtracks alone have accustomed us to expanded possibilities.

Now the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony and David Bernard's reading of Rite and Firebird reflects our acceptance and familiarity with these icons. There is sensuality, there is great power, there is a dynamic smoothness, a sure handedness of execution and easy comprehensions of the full breadth of the scores. The chamber sized orchestra does not overtax, the strings are equals with the winds and brass, all seems right and measured yet forcefully lyric.The percussion is not shy and we get the full weight of the music in a nicely balanced neither romanticized or self-consciously "savage" way.

The versions are close to ideal. The performance is near perfect for the newcomer to "Modern" music. Old hands may well find these versions worthwhile to add to their collection. I myself am glad to have them.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Janson, Mikalsen, Vaage, Ratkje, Variations Over Variations, Norwegian Radio Orchestra

So much to hear out there. And then, something sneaks up on you. Boom! Variations Over Variations (Aurora ACD 5096) was a kind of boom for me. I did not expect it. I was glad to hear it. The Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya give us well shaped performances of four Norwegian works previously unknown to me yet adventuresome in the New High Modern zone.

Three of the works were written in 2014, one in 2017. The liner notes point out that the composers straddle different generations and traditions. In common is that all works were commissioned or co-commissioned by the orchestra. What counts is that all works have a poignancy and thoroughly immerse the listener in orchestral color and imaginative poetics.

We get the chance to familiarize ourselves with Alfred Janson's "Variations Over Variations Over a Norwegian Folk Tune," Jan Erik Mikalsen's "Songr for Orchestra," Knut Vaage's "Mylder," and Maja S.K. Ratkje's "Paragraf 112."

Through the many twists and turns that I make no attempt to describe here one constant weaves its way through it all--the Modern project whether tonal or expanded, an acute sense of line and timbre, an epic attention to involved orchestral eloquence. Every one of these works adds something good to what already has been.

It should be a joy to you if you  treasure the new consonance, the new orchestral possibilities. There is neither an acute striving after the very borders of the possible nor a conscious attempt to hold back the sluice gates of invention. A hugely satisfying sleeper is what we have here. Take a chance and listen closely! Very recommended.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ann Millikan, Millikan Symphony, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The excellent Boston Modern Music Project under Gil Rose returns for the music of a New American Composer of note, namely Ann Millikan and her full-length Millikan Symphony (Innova 981). Now I must say that dealing with a plethora of New Music most every day has its challenges, for me especially in the constant interplay of same and different. Commonly there will be stylistic traits in New Music that tend to cluster in groups and can be identified. In the end, though, what matters about a composer or a work is how those clusters reverberate in the individual sense, or on the other hand what is not to be found if it does not seem to be there, how sometimes you do not hear such a reverberation much.

In the case of Ann Millikan and her Millikan Symphony, what she does with some Modern traits is much more important than the newness or oldness of the traits themselves. Listening to Millikan Symphony it is supremely important to hear the work closely, more than once. Otherwise  the traits themselves will be the main apprehension and the special putting together might totally pass you by. A reasoned, considered judgement on New Music is a complex give and take of content and structure.

So I would venture to say that the structuring of the content of Millikan Symphony is the critical aspect that sets it apart. Sure if you look at each piece as a piece you might identify Copland pastoral tenderness, Stravinskian Neo-Classical heroic regality, maybe some of the orchestral dynamics of some of the most celebrated big orchestrators (I won't say Richard Strauss here because it is not quite that), maybe the Harrisonian delicious articulation of flute and strings, the moody mystery of Post-Tone Poetry, and more.

Yet thanks to the very gradated excellence of the BMOP performance and what the score calls for, there is a kind of inner organicism of spirit and a narrative thrust that is a story in itself.

This is a work of hommage, of Ann to her brother Robert, dead at the age of 55 in 2012, a brilliant epidemiologist, a pioneer on the incidence of breast cancer,  a dedicated veterinarian, a lover of nature and a profoundly musical soul. The five movements of the work unravel and reveal a special aspect of Robert the human. There is the "Science" movement, one for "Animals," "Rowing," and "Violin." Polyrhythmic and tonally expanded, the music is at once beholden to the legacy of High Modernism and also too to the grand narrative style of the most revered orchestral masters. The music comes out of a collaborative venture planned over the years between Robert and Ann. Some of the music was dictated by Ann to Robert; the principal"Violin" movement  theme has Robert's compositional hand upon it. Milliken Symphony is the triumphant result of the two in their musical closeness, yet also stunningly a backward view of Robert's many tiered life via the hindsight of its passing.

It is hard to imagine a more moving tribute. Even though we may know next to nothing about Robert's life, something very strong of its essence comes through throughout. 

After very many listens I come away from the work feeling like I have heard something of real significance. All those superficial traits at the first listen have become enigmatically original along with the flow and pacing and structure. It is not a work you put on first time and give a loud "wow!" to in response. The wow effect builds. Then, you know. Or I knew, anyway. Wow.

You would do well to venture upon this music and its very satisfying performance by BMOP. It is subtle in the beginning of your interaction, then the it becomes more and more clearly, identifiably special. I do recommend you spend some serious time with this. Ann Millikan is a living treasure!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Third Coast Percussion, Paddle to the Sea

We approach a season, especially where I am, that becomes ever more focused on water, particularly sea water. Enter the Third Coast Percussion's Paddle to the Sea (Cedille CDR 90000 175). As the title suggests, the music performed on this program has been put together in this form to describe  musically-virtually a journey out to sea on a small craft. The music follows on the heels of their Grammy Winning album of the music of Steve Reich.

The music is perfectly dazzling much of the time, like early light upon the waves of the sea. Lots of marimbas, vibes, metallophones, and some mbiras evoke a post-African, post-Indonesian Modernist and post-Modernist sprawl of time and tone. Head to the sand, to the waves, to the smell of coconut oil sun lotion, to the teaming marine life that boat skims over gracefully on a spring morning. That is the music to me on the eve of the end of winter.

Third Coast Percussion here triumphs where perhaps others would do so the lesser. There is a musical opening onto the water from the first, Third Coast's striking arrangement of Philip Glass's "Madeira River." It sets the scene for the "Paddle to the Sea" sequence that cycles like a space-age Javanese Gamelan. It was originally created to act as the score for the film of the same name. It has depth and dramatic breadth too.

Then there is m-bouyant mbira via Musekiwa Chingodza's vocal-mbira arrangement of the traditional Shona African "Chigwaya." It is ravishing music. From there we hear arrangements of three more movements from Philip Glass's Aguas da Amazonia and six movements of Jacob Druckman's Reflections on the Nature of Water. 

I've listened to this album a bunch of times by now. My love of it grows without fail each time I hear it. Anyone who appreciates melodic percussion and the Post-Minimal possibilities that can be heard today must simply look this one up! Anyone looking for "trends" of New Music lately will find this most absorbing as well. It is sublime!

Friday, March 2, 2018

John A. Carollo, The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino

In the realm of emergent composers in the US, one of my favorites, happily, is John A. Carollo. There is a brand new one coming out soon and I will no doubt cover it. Today, though, I must catch up with a very nice one that came out last year. The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino (Navona 6109 CD or 2-LPs) I've been listening to and liking for several months now. It is a compilation of orchestral works in World Premier Recordings. Per Vronsky conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra throughout. The performances are respectable and give us a clearly articulated opening onto the works. There no doubt will be other performances to follow in time. For now we get to hear the music as Maestro Carollo intended it.

There is a great deal of excellent music to savor in this program. "The Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief" and "Move Towards the Light (Your Destiny Awaits You)" are the first and last compositions in the sequence, bookends that have some of the very ravishing Carollo largos, which are so American in thrust, with some echo and extension of the Ives mystery and perhaps even some echoes of Ornette Coleman's justly celebrated "The Skies of America." That is not to say that there is imitation involved, just a kind of Zeitgeist of belonging. These works perhaps epitomize a kind of cosmos of longing for something beyond the materiality of the American Dream.

More or less sandwiched in between are a number of rather wonderfully contrasting works of a very different sort."The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino," "Let Freedom Ring," "Do You Have an E.R. for Music?" and "Symphony No. 2 (The Circle of Fire)" give notice (again?) that John A. Carollo is a serious player in the New American Music scene today. The works have great forward rhythmic momentum without following a "Rites" model or for that matter any other in any obvious way. The music is consequential and enlivening, It exists in its own singular category as Carollo music. That is saying a great deal.

A detailed description of the music is not really necessary for these purposes. Suffice to say that there is a dynamic energy to the middle works and a ravishing mystery to the end works. Together we get a detailed earful of the full spectrum of Carollean musico-logic and poeticism.

I recommend this music to you most strongly. It is original and grows exponentially inside you the more you listen. Grab this if you want to open yourself to emergent American music today.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Ken Walicki, Cyberistan, Electro-Acoustic Music

Every day I try and turn words into music on these pages. Modern music does not become words, exactly. It has a parallel and the words point more than emulate. So there are words this morning for a new wrinkle on New Music, a Modern take on Electro-Acoustics, namely Ken Walicki and his CD Cyberistan (Ravello RR7974).

Five works grace the program. Each concentrates on an acoustic instrument or set of instruments. Each centers the instrumental sound in a carpet of electro-acoustic sounds directly related to the instrumental situation or in complement to it.

So we hear Tom Peters' double bass as a foundational launching pad on "Light," Virginia Costa Figueiredo's clarinet and Fureya Unal's piano on "Black Water," Rachel Mellis's flute on "Sabah," Fureya Unal's piano on "Cyberistan," and the Eclipse Quartet on "nada Brahma."

The title Cyberistan is telling. Walicki makes a kind of transformed World Music with elements of Jazz, New Music and an acute sense of purposefulness. There may be no tighter a bond of live instruments and electro-acoustics than what we hear here. All exists seemingly by design and direction more so than chance. That saying it is nonetheless often spontaneous sounding

Walecki is another exemplar of the Modern as tonal, spacious and vaguely non-Western. There is lift, expressive drift, parts working together as an organic whole. Yet one does not want to leave the "another" hanging. Because there is nothing merely sequential, no simple "this follows the before" patness.

The send-off of "nada Brahma" leaves us with a certainty that such sounds are rare and affirming. What is the Modern today? This is one excellent answer. Hear it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Grant Cutler, Self Portrait

Grant Cutler comes our way with Self Portrait (Innova 961), an eight-part ambient soundscape for a chamber ensemble of synth, organ, piano, two cellos, violin, saxophone and vocalist. The production by Grant Cutler and Chris Campbell is spacious and dreamy, so much so that you have to listen for a while to fully grasp the instrumental combinations. This is not electro-acoustic music per se yet the music has an enhanced feel that puts it into soundscape territory. Grant Cutler and Chris Campbell made another memorable soundscapery a while back with their Schooldays Over, which I liked quite a bit and posted about on these pages when it was first released. Type their names in the search box above to see that review.

Self Portrait brings to us a sustained atmosphere of floating aetherial tonality. The mood is both introspective and elated. It reminds me slightly of Terry Riley's mid-later work, but not the Minimalist strain so much as some of his movie music. Floating choral-color sound blocks drift by like gossamer clouds on a moderately brisk breeze.

This is music that can best be heard rather than described. And so I post this as a place marker, to recommend that you hear the sounds and sequences so nicely mapped out and executed by Grant Cutler and colleagues.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Steve Rouse, Morphic Resonance, Chamber Music

The music of Steve Rouse has a kind of natural fluency born of a convincing inventiveness. We can hear this to excellent advantage on his recent album Morphic Resonance, Chamber Music (Ravello 7973).

Steve Rouse has a voice, a presence, an original take on the Modern Contemporary project. Five compositions grace this volume. Each one reveals special aspects of the Rouse approach. Each is sure of its goals and realizes them with distinction.

"Sonata for Violin and Piano" has a Neo-Classical Stravinsky-esque flavor. There is a joyous rhythmic drive and an infectious melodic-harmonic fingerprint of Rouse-ness nicely to be heard throughout.

"Form Fades" for six chamber instrumentalists has motor propulsion and repetition outside of a typically orthodox minimalist range--the repetitive elements occur more in developmental blocks than post-African line movement. It is not-so-much "through" rhythmically as it is a matter of cubistically conjoined sectional blocks that whirl for a certain time, then give way to a new sonic event. I would say that this favorably reminds me of Luc Ferrari's "Interrupteur" and "Tautologos 3." Yet I say that not because it sounds like either. Rather there are surface plane divisions like a cracked earth mantle. The divisions have related yet distinctive differences to them, so that a traversal is not a repetition overall so much as movement along various fault lines. That is, if that makes any sense. Like the Ferrari works I have loved for so long, you do not feel a suspension of time. You feel strongly a movement forward. It is beautiful, original music!

"Nevolution" brings together a primal ahead-directed piano part with expressive scaling-searching trumpet (actually corno da caccia) often with a natural resonance. It is a memorable and idiosyncratic work.

"Ten Little Things" pits clarinet with percussion for some very rousing and expressive miniatures. The variable coloration of a battery of percussion instruments feeds the clarinet part with contrasts. A series of open explorations results, ear opening and ever-shifting in its trajectories.

"King Tango" is the short yet eventful closer. Flute and double bass send us off in style in a nicely jagged, futuristic manner. There is much to savor in this compressed moment of farewell.

So we have an end to a worthy and original program. Steve Rouse has it, a voice for our times. Any fan of New Music will no doubt find this as essential as I did. Get it!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Daron Hagen, 21st Century Song Cycles, Lyric Fest

Once again into the fray of this century! Today, a living American composer, one Daron Hagen (b. 1961). We get five 21st Century Song Cycles (Naxos 8.559714). They are World Premier Recordings. Performances are by Lyric Fest, a Philadelphia-based  multi-vocalist-pianist gathering dedicated to the Art Song in performance. It consists  of sopranos Justine Aronso, Kelly Ann Bixby, Gilda Lyons, mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, tenor Joseph Gaines, baritone Daniel Teadt and Laura Ward at the piano.

Those who know Daron Hagen's music well will forgive my ignorance. The Naxos back jewel-case blurb makes note of his operas, symphonies and concertos, and most importantly his more than 350 published art songs.  The blurb goes on to assert that Hagen is continuing the art tradition of American icons Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem!

If all that is so, I surmised on reading the blurb before I put the CD on, then this should be much to my liking! Does this music live up to the introduction? Read on.

For art song vocals I have in my head a couple of templates: Schubert, Elly Ameling and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. All that may indeed raise the bar to impossible heights, I admit. And there are other paths, more modern of course, and other vocal colors to apprehend and appreciate. How does this CD measure up?

Quite obviously it is too much to ask an Art Song composer to rise to Schubert's heavenly sky soaring. So also Ameling and Fischer-Dieskau were in many ways definitive performers of such fare. Face it, these yardsticks of measure are supposing a moment in Art Song perfection we should not expect to be equalled let along exceeded any time soon. Then of course a composer today must go her or his own way, and vocalists can give us exceptional performances in a contemporary realm without necessarily touching that set of particulars.

What, then of these five Song Cycles and their performances? Do they further the ambitious paths set beyond Schubert by Barber, Bernstein and Rorem? I will not say no. There is much very good music to hear on this program. And what of the performances? I will say straight off that pianist Laura Ward leaves nothing to be desired given the parameters of the works.

The seven song "Phantoms of Myself" (2000) with soprano Gilda Lyons is in performance and as Art Song stunning. The cycle covers a 24-hour day via the selected poem-texts of Susan Griffin, feminist and poetic strength. The cycle was initially commissioned for first performance by Ashley Putnam. Ms. Lyons brings her own magic to the songs.

Then there are the substantial and worthwhile presentations of first recordings of four other cycles: "After Words" (2013), "Songs of Experience" (2007), "Four Irish Folk Songs" (2009), "Four Dickenson Songs" (2014). All have a poetic lyricism, a tonal Post-Romantic aura, an expressive foundational communicative quality and a good deal of musical subtlety.

Is Hagen carrying the mantle of American Art Song development today? Undoubtedly, yes. Anyone with an interest in such things should find this collection compelling and very worthwhile. Recommended.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jason Tad Howard, Daniel Perttu, Small Stones, Modern Piano Music, Nancy Zipay Desalvo

What do we mean right now when we say in terms of music "The Modern?" I surely must think I know. After all this blog is called Gapplegate Classical-Modern Review, right? I generally believe how a term is used in the active contemporary realm is the most instructive. So I do not especially care to assert on some abstract, peopleless level what the "Modern" is for all eternity. By nature there is a fleeting quality to it. Some people concentrate on "correct" usage, assuming that there is a valid, permanent meaning ascribed  to a word, perhaps in extremis stemming back in Biblical terms to what Adam purported to name everything in his world. I balk at such things. What at the moment we mean by "Modern" is what matters to me. And since last century it does mean a body of somethings distinct from other things.

There is the Modern Period, perhaps in musical terms everything composed from perhaps 1910 or so through to today. Then there is the "High Modern," what was most advanced and marked as "Modern" in music made between maybe 1946 to 1980? And now there is simply everything we might experience in the Contemporary New Music or mainstream Classical spheres, being known by that term simply because it has been composed in our present day. This is not an exhaustive roundup since there still is all the music composed from say 1910 on, the particulars of what that can be. My blog certainly tries to answer the question with every posting. And there is no one answer.

For the moment the present-day Modern category concerns me. That is so because today's posting covers Small Stones, Modern Piano Music (Navona 6139). It is a 32 minute EP that presents two ambitious Sonatas for piano, one by Jason Tad Howard, another by Daniel Perttu. The music is well-performed by Nancy Zipay Desalvo.

As the self-defining "Modern Piano Music" subtitle makes clear, this is "Modern" in name as well as time period. So what then is modern about it? Jason Tad Howard gives us his "Piano Sonata No. 2, Nine Short Shorts for Piano." Daniel Perttu in turn presents to us his "Sonata for Piano." Nancy Zipay Desalvo brings to both works a fine, dramatically interpretive sensibility that in no small part accounts for the success of the program.

So how, then is this Modern Music? The answer is not facile or so plainly obvious as it might be for other works we could  hear under this rubric. Both works are firmly tonal, which should surprise nobody. Both have a sort of "Neo-Expressionist" vitality to them. They sometimes remind one of those transitional pianistic voices that graced the Early Modern period, Sorabji, Ornstein, Scriabin, Ives in some passages, Alkan, Prokofiev, and so forth. The music coming as it does now warrants some kind of "Neo-" prefix. But too the music is in no way especially identical to the earlier Expressionist pianistic proponents. And that is so logically to the extent that the individual qualities of each composer reaches out to our listening ears.

The most obvious element when you first listen is to be had in Howard's Sonata. There are eight brief movements and one slightly longer end statement. The point becomes not some unified development or even variational span to my ears. Rather, each snippet builds atop what has come before, in the end forming a collection of phrasal-melodic-harmonic possibilities that relate one to another by virtue of metonymy and lengthening more so than some simple organic wholeness.

Perttu's own Sonata is a dash forward into cascades and waves of momentus sound. The individual element is no doubt the manner in which Perttu builds the expressions in seamless and dramatic ways.

This is a volume one might not expect in that the music does not easily fit into any obvious movement in Post-Modern Modernism. If you simply forget all of that the music speaks eloquently and memorably. Ms. Desalvo brings every nuance to life and convinces us that the music is very worthwhile. Small Stones will find sympathetic vibrations no doubt in anyone who responds readily to pianism of a high order. It is not music to jar you into another world of sound. It is music that has much continuity with traditional pianism from Chopin on. Yet there is something singular and winning about each Sonata. Give this one a try and see what you think. I myself am happy to hear and rehear the music.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Nick Zoulek, Rushing Past Willow, Music for Solo Saxophone

The advent of the saxophone in the music called Jazz has by now been subject to a rather long technical-expressive development. From the first players had a vision of the sound of the instrument generally far more robust and aurally more complex than so-called "legitimate techniques" would warrant. By the time of the bar-walking honkers such as Big Jay McNeely (and Illinois Jacquet before him) a richly overtoned sound had become a fully fleshed out way to play, and audiences tended to approve with enthusiasm.

On the art-avant fronts of modern jazz we note the rise of Albert Ayler, later John Coltrane, Dewey Redman and Evan Parker, to name some significant players. The harmonic fullness of the sax was activated by such pioneers with a consistency and performative rightness that gave the instrument new expressive life. One need only think of Coltrane's evolving approach to improvising on "My Favorite Things," where he would pivot in varying skips around a root, over time pinpointing the runs with harmonics on the soprano that became an ever more important element each time he soloed live in the years following the initial Atlantic release.

Such things became very much an expressive element of so many saxophonists who came after within the Hard Mainstream and the post-New-Thing streams of performativity.

In many ways a concentrated culmination of this school of saxaphonistration comes forward with a new album by Nick Zoulek, Rushing Past Willow (Innova  953). Twelve solo works for alto, tenor and bass saxophones are the order of the day. The music has evolved over the years from a number of distinctly singular improvisations. With continual performances each became further refined as a cogent Modern composition.

So though there is a definite Avant Jazz foundational element to these saxophone works they veer towards Modern Avant New Music in their formal trajectory.

Each piece is a working out of root-skips patterns that are tonal and sometimes modal yet are very much sound-colored by the palpable and very musical control Nick has over each saxophone. The music has often a whirling dervish quality, with continual spins around core motifs that via circular breath control and added vocal contributions become hypnotic and soulfully performative. The rich harmonics and overtones create multiple tones, primal harmonies, "orchestrational" simultaneities both aurally satisfying and timbrally stunning. Of course the bass sax gives Nick the most to work with for split tone possibilities, yet each sax has been fully pinpointed for an artistic exploitation of the multiple strands of possibility.

The more you listen, the more it becomes convincing. Zoulek's exacting control and imagination make of this an aural joy! Anyone interested in sound color and extended techniques will find this substantial I have no doubt. Start the trip with a first listen and you will see what I mean. Excellent!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Philippe Manoury, Third Coast Percussion, The Book of Keyboards

The body of New, Modern Music for percussion ensembles continues to grow and develop. Thanks to cutting edge ensembles like Third Coast Percussion composers can create new works with some confidence that they can get a proper hearing if conditions are right. The CD at hand is a fine example of the continued excellence of new works appearing in the present day.

Today's program gives Third Coast Percussion a chance to shine brightly on mallets. Philippe Manoury gives us two of his evocative compositions on The Book of Keyboards (New Focus Recordings FCR 187).

The two works cover a kind of linear modern territory that alternates between full out contrapuntal energy thrusts and more reflective, more intimate soundings. The sound colors possible in the mallet zone are clearly an important factor in the music we hear on the program. There is a relation to the gong and key tradition of Thailand, the Philippines, Bali, Java and so forth. Rather than tightly coil and repeat phrases a la minimalism this music is more through-composed and endlessly varying. It holds some lineal relation to early Cage-Harrison works for percussion. In the whole of those associations however there is a marked personal development to be heard. 

All that is what I bring to the table hearing this music. Turning to the liner notes I get a more formal and insider view of that is up. The liners talk of the extraordinary demands Manoury makes on the players. Part of the score supposes that the ensemble constructs an instrument via the specifications Manoury lays out in the score. The original specs were given by composer Xenakis: to allow choice and to be built from scratch. Manoury adds some other requirements. The result is the sixxen, which appears from time-to-time in the title score and happily so. The liners go on to talk about Manoury's post-dodecaphonically originated closeness to Boulez, and the sheer difficulty of parts of the scores in the execution realm. All this is quite helpful to take in the full impact of repeated hearings.

In the end, though, we are drawn in by the aural sensuality of the music, its vibrancy and liveliness. At times the music is nothing short of spectacular. As you listen you might ask yourself if this particularly demanding scenario is fully necessary for an appreciation of the music as it speaks to us. The answer is that is is the very thing that keeps the music from becoming a new world music per se or in other words a structural clone of world musics related to the sounds here. Without what Manoury brings to the notes and sequencing it would not be Manoury music. Perhaps that is obvious, but only after you have lived with this music with some intimacy over time.

So that is what strikes me. The music has great depth. It is difficult to play at times but not difficult to hear.The sensual pleasure of mallet instruments is at the forefront. The form the music takes is the identity marker and it is what sets it apart. All told, this is music of singular significance. And it will appeal to anyone predisposed toward the sounds we hear so nicely. The substance of the music makes it especially worthwhile. I recommend this album without hesitation. If you feel like you would like it, I have little doubt that you will!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Harry Freedman, The Concert Recordings

Every day brings more new music and when it is very good I am very happy. I must say that there can be incredible music in the offing, and without the review connection I would have missed some singular releases over the years. I feel like that after having heard a number of times Harry Freedman: The Concert Recordings (Centrediscs 23517).

It is a sort of mini-retrospective from a Canadian composer of true merit. Orchestral works from 1960-2003 get fine performances and give us an insightful look at the magic of Freedman's music. He lived from 1922 to 2005. Like some select others on the new music front he amassed a significant body of works (based on this vibrant sampling, anyway) and from where I sit was not given the recognition he deserved.

There is never a time to appreciate music of merit that is really "too late." The Concert Recordings gather together some CBC Radio broadcasts with a fine aural staging and worthy performances. It all sounds as great today as it might have back when these broadcasts aired.

As the liner notes for the CD assert and as my ears affirm, Freedman was a masterful orchestrator. The sound palette is ever of the most subtly brilliant sort, regardless of the stylistic variables of Freedman's music over time. There is mystery in the music, all informed by a Modernist expression but not all of a piece. There is change, development, constant creative thrust to be heard. Perhaps the orchestral palette could be at times described as sort of Neo-Impressionist? Not entirely always and not in some derivative way.

We get a full sampling of orchestral Freedman in a fine fettle. There is "Borealis" (1997), "Graphic IX" (2000),  "Indigo" (1994), "Manipulating Mario" (2003), and "Images" (1960). Nothing is insignificant. All is worthy of our concentrated attention.

I will not attempt to pinpoint stylistically the ins and outs of the works on the program. Your own ears will tell you what you hear and it is enough to say that there is originality and highly expressive results throughout.

This might be the sleeper of the year! What is clear is that Freedman was a master of the Modern Orchestral Arts! Put this one on and pay attention if you will! It is well worth your eartime.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Harold Meltzer, Variations on a Summer Day & Piano Quartet

I have had the pleasure of encountering the music of Harold Meltzer via a harpsichord work in an anthology.of harpsichord music I covered here some time ago (you can look it up by typing Meltzer in the search box at the top) and, most importantly, I reviewed his Naxos CD in 2010, which I loved (see the Gapplegate Music Review article of November 19, 2010 for that). Now it is time to turn to the new CD at hand, Meltzer's Variations on a Summer Day & Piano Quartet (open g records).

The liner notes to the album sum up the composer's recent development. Andrew Waggoner makes note of Meltzer's 2007-08 Brion (on the Naxos release I reviewed, see above) as the culmination of the influence of Stravinsky and Donatoni. The later works heard here, Waggoner continues, move in a more individual direction at the same time as they tip the hat to the Pastoral American composers of the '30s and '40s of last century, and also make a connection with Copland's beautiful "Piano Variations" and too his "Piano Quartet."

All this does not contradict what I hear in this music. I must admit I am not so familiar with Donatoni. Nevertheless I hear the other influences mentioned without there being a derivation. These works bask in their originality at the same time as they offer a lively, lyrical and cogently Neo-Pastoral way ahead if you will.

Both works are substantial and have a winning aura about them. The "Piano Quartet" has none of the heavy romantic Germanicism of Pre-Modern chamber music. It is agile and light of foot, with lots of unexpected twists and lovely turns within a forward momentum.

"Variations on a Summer Day" brings in a central solo soprano part interpreted sturdily by Abigail Fischer. It all glows with a lazy summer sun ahead and the nine-piece chamber mini-orchestra scores with some truly special notefull-orchestrational tone paintings.

There is, then, some very welcome breeze freshening-- there is a refreshing  and beautifully Modern music lyricism on display in this album. Harold Meltzer is a phenomenon. The disk shows us how that is! Wonderful.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Emanuele Arciuli, Walk in Beauty, Contemporary Piano Music

When we reach a certain point in our music listening every new work we hear adds to the understanding of the whole of what has been and will be. Before we grasp the continuity of music as a whole each new thing seems to have no apparent relation to another thing, sometimes.

Those who have come to the music well and drank deeply of its cooling nectar should welcome pianist Emanuele Arciuli and his Walk in Beauty (Innova 255, 2-CDs), a survey of Modern Contemporary New Music for piano that has thematic continuity. There are in fact two overarching thematic components, one an abiding evocative representation of nature, and the second, Native American culture through music composed or inspired by indigenous composers.

In all these shades of interrelated meanings we experience virtually the all of New Music possibilities side-by-side, Post-Minimalism, High Modernism, Radical Tonality, Expressionism, a kind of epistemological United Nations of contemporary styles, with a basic American center node.

Emanuele Arciuli shows his enormous interpretive acumen. Each work is given a surety of pianism, an extraordinary rightness of musical saying.

In the course of unravelling this two-CD set we encounter all the mystery and beauty the program promises. So there are individual identity pieces by the likes of Connor Chee, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Michael Daugherty, John Luther Adams, Raven Chacon, Martin Bresnick, Louis W. Ballard, Jennifer Higdon, Peter Gilbert, Carl Ruggles, Brent Michael Davids, and Talib Rasul Hakim. Some are well-known to us, others less so; some are Native Americans, some just give out with a natural ethos and foundational spirit-singing. All contribute uniquely and stand up alongside one another as a gathering of musical voices in a great saying.

And so this program fits itself into what contemporary music can be and is now. We no longer have to present a stylistic monolith that is meant to replace all with itself. No, this music creates its own bringing together to say in musical terms what can best be said in musical terms.

And for all that the saying is remarkable on the level of compositions and performances. With a coming regeneration of springtime this music stands as a sturdy and unflaggingly bright wayside directional beacon. It is however for any season, for all seasons. It points but it also supremely IS. Listen. Listen again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Megumi Masaki, MUSIC4EYES+EARS

In the course of the daily rounds I get the mail, open up the packages of new CDs for review consideration, hear new ones and listen to ones in the regular listening-review rotation. Oh, and in the mornings first light and beyond, I review one or more albums while listening a final time to each. First listens determine whether I like something well enough to review and then it goes from there. So Megumi Masaki and her MUSIC4EYES+EARS  (Centrediscs CD & Bluray 24017).

Pianist Masaki and her program of contemporary sounds (and sights) made it past the first listen and in subsequent listens took ready shape before me. Like many CDs I end up reviewing a first listen gave me a basic understanding and appreciation but it was only in subsequent hearings that I understood fully what was in the offing.

Megumi Masaka's MUSIC 4EYES+EARS is as the title indicates. The accompanying press sheet spells it out: "These works are designed to explore diverse concepts, performance techniques and interactive technologies in live piano + multimedia performance. Central to this project is how the interaction of image. movement, text and sound can create new expressive potentials as a whole."

The program of compositions indeed address that. The CD contains two works by two Canadian composers, Patrick Carrabre and Keith Hamel. They are each a fascinating joining of elements in dramatic juxtaposition, soundscape-y at times and otherwise tonally adventuresome and freely combinatory. The piano has a central and notable role to play in all of this and Ms. Masaki does a beautiful job realizing the parts with a poetic pianism that brings the notes to vivid life. The visual multimedia elements of course cannot be apprehended on the CD, but the spoken, sung, electronically enhanced and instrumental parts all bring forth a very scenic, synethesially near-visual immediacy in their connotations.

So "Orpheus Drones," "Orpheus (2)." and "Touch" have a narrative quality to them as they also present a vibrant sound panorama fascinating in the sensual-aural realm alone. There is a second disc, a Blu-Ray program that includes "Touch" and three additional works. Unfortunately I do not currently have Blu-Ray capability but I imagine there are visual components to be seen and multi-channel audio? Based on the CD I can only imagine there would be much there of interest and fascination.

And the more I listen to the CD, the more I find it rather riveting. Some parts seem post-minimal, some post-Stockhausenian, some elsewhere altogether but beautiful in the piano and sound color narratives that consistently take place."Touch" for live computer processing and piano by Keith Hamel is quite something remarkable in its unfolding. Then again Carrabre's long two-part "Orpheus Drones" that includes Margaret Atwood's poetry has another take on the possible that is most definitely worthwhile and memorable.

Without knowing exactly how the Blu-Ray disk goes I nevertheless do not hesitate to recommend this album to you. The piano-not-piano interplay is not quite like anything being done out there today. The music holds its own.  It is new music with an emphasis on the NEW! So check it out if you will.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Gail Archer, A Russian Journey, Organ Music of the "Russian Five"

When an album presents to a listener like me a body of works I might only dream about and do not expect to find, it is an occasion. And then I listen with avid interest. That is what has happened on the recording at hand. It is organ music of the Russian Five! Plus one. That is, we have a selection of organ works by Mussorgsky, Cesar Cui, Ljapunow, Glasunow. Slominski and Alexander Schawersaschwili. I speak of the album by organist Gail Archer, A Russian Journey (Meyermedia MM17035).

Of course the Russian Five were supremely important original figures in the development of a genuinely independent Russian classical identity. Mussorgsky alone was a titan but none of them are at all explained away by the Romanticism in the air all over the West at the time. What is primary is a continuity with the classical tradition but a search for Russian expression and in the process an oblique path towards a Russian Modernism that only comes to its fullest flower with a Stravinsky, a Prokofiev and later a Shostakovich.

To keep all of this in mind as we listen to this program of organ music is to feel a creative turbulence and an expressive movement that only becomes clear in the teleology of time passing. The music we hear on A Russian Journey is very much in the organ music lineage of the later 19th Century. So we hear a relationship to the symphonic fullness of Franck and his school, yet also a clear pulling away with the Mussorgsky especially, and truly present in more or less subtle ways in the rest.

The critical contrapuntal influence of Bach can also be heard to greater or lesser degrees, especially in the various preludes, fugues and the toccata.

All of this music is not inconsequential and well worth repeated hearings. The organ version of "Night on Bald Mountain" is fabulous and revelatory. Who but Mussorgsky could craft such an expression when he did?  But any Russophile of a serious sort will welcome the entire program. The performances by Gail Archer have heart and expressionist aplomb.

In the end I recommend this very much. The audience may be self-selecting. You are either someone who wants to hear this for all the reasons you do, or you do not. In other words, this is probably not the album to transform you into an organ music lover nor does it lend itself especially to function as a first stab at Russian classical appreciation, though it could if you come to it as an organ enthusiast.

In the final round this program offers much to treasure.  Get it if it sounds like it has your name on it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Craig Hella Johnson, Considering Matthew Shepard, Conspirare

I was sent Craig Hella Johnson's ambitious choral-instrumental work Considering Matthew Shepard (Harmonia Mundi HMU807638-39 2-CDs) some time ago. I liked it on first listen but then the pile it was in became left off to the side in the hustkle and bustle of my life then. I rediscovered that stack behind other stacks recently and came back to the album. Subsequent listens made me feel ever more sure that the music was quite excellent and needed coverage despite the delay. So I turn to it today and hope to do it the justice it deserves.

The exceptional group Conspirare does the performance honors along with select vocal soloists. And they are the right performers in their ready ability to adapt themselves to the considerable and variably pan-stylistic, eclectic demands of the score.

The work is about the infamous hate crime, the brutal beating and murder of Matthew Shepard because he was gay. There is the chain of events and the long mourning, the long search for meaning in the aftermaths of protests and outrage, the senselessness of it all.

Johnson makes of it all a touchingly direct panorama. It is eclectically tonal, pomo in a way surely. It may well belong to an American patchwork quilt of sounds, a lineage that certainly includes Bernstein's Mass in its rooted recent past. Considering Matthew Shepard movingly and effectively combines a bit of minimalism with lyrical and theatre song, songwriting-singer traditions, earthy hymns, blues and gospel tinges, and choral vibrancy in telling the sad tale and in the end redemption of a kind we only get after the worst has happened. That is if we care to reflect upon the outrageous happenstances of some modern days and nights.

There is strength and fragility there to be heard. And a power much more than the first impression of eclecticism reveals. No, you must listen more.

And after a time you find that this music very much speaks. It is much more than the sum of its parts. It very much hangs together as drama, as documamusic, as ponder piece on the sad realities of events sometimes, and a healing in the end. Or a gesture towards that end.

It is not music intended to cut the edge of possibilities. Instead in draws upon a broad swatch of American local  musics to be of a place as much as of a piece.

All that makes the music and its performance a welcomely moving thing. There is lyricism in its healing. You may well love it. I think I do.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

American Romantics II, Gowanus Arts Ensemble, Reuben Blundell

Turn-of-the-century America liked to see itself in its arts as both simple and ineffable, occupying in its drams and in its dreams a natural landscape fashioned and improved by humankind for its pastoral pleasure, along with the virtues of hearth, family, home and community in an ideal cast. Reality was in part these things but then all sorts of complexities and ambiguities, even in downright contradiction, namely its industrial juggernaut, inequalities, and the struggle towards Modernity that was to become paramount in a few years, but at first a direction only lurking in the woolgathered brown studiousness of future artists.

The freeze frame of a land poised to change rapidly yet still seeing itself with the lens of an ideal past can be heard in a volume of short works by the composers stylistically prior to the bold Charles Ives. They were roughly contemporaneous with each other in an overall field that Charles Ives found himself reacting with and against when he first came upon the scene. It helps us to hear and contemplate the Romantic matrix out of which sprang American Modernity. Plus it is music worthy of a hearing on its own terms. And it helps us more fully to grasp American Neo-Romantics like Samuel Barber who were to appear in the wake of these artists.

And so we have a volume directly relevant to such concerns, American Romantics II (New Focus Recordings FCR 166B). It is a worthy grouping of short examples performed devotedly by the Gowanus Arts Ensemble under Reuben Blundell. There is a serenity and transparent depth to these performances that seem just right. Nothing becomes mawkish as perhaps some earlier recorded versions could. Even the bookend Carl Busch arrangements of Stephen Foster songs are luminous and reverently staged.

Beyond the surprisingly moving Foster arrangements we are treated to softly glowing works by the likes of Felix Borowski, George Whitfield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Paul Theodore Miersch, Ethelbert Nevin, Edgar Stillman Kelly, Martinus Van Gelder, Bernardus Boekelman. Louis Lombard, Arthur Bird, Charles Wakefield Cadman  Not all of these names you will know, I suspect, and some you will. Yet taken all together we get a true representative example of what the first end-point of American Romanticism might sound like in retrospect.

And the strings have a way about them that is almost early-music-like in their very retrained vibratoes and the plaintive matter-of-factness of it all. The sort of brio vibrato madness with which these works might have been performed some years ago disappears to be replaced by performances that are so much more convincing.

In the end we are given the chance to re-experience these works anew. For me anyway I feel like there is a new life to this music here. It is much more congenial and even touching to hear these somewhat naive pastoral works the way Gowanus and Blundell approach them. Bravo!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Alla Elana Cohen, Jupiter Duo, with Sebastian Baverstam

After listening to, liking and reviewing Alla Elana Cohen's Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells on these pages (see November 9, 2017 article here), I was ready for more. Happily I did not have to wait long, for there is a new album of Cohen works entitled Jupiter Duo (Ravello 7978). It is an engaging sampling of Ms. Cohen's very expressive music for cello and piano. Sebastian Baverstam has a great deal of presence on cello. Ms. Cohen flames and sparkles brightly on piano.

We have a chance to hear seven multi-part compositions on the program. "Book of Prayers" appears twice in two different segments. Then there are "Sephardic Romancero," "Three Film Noir Pieces," "Third Vioil," "Spiral Staircases," and "Querying the Silence."

Expressionism differs from Romanticism like a third-generation offspring resembles her grandmother. Related yet NOT the same. If you factor in a folk expressionism like one heards in world musics, African music especially, the chronology may be backwards? Not so, however in the Classical lineage, where mostly we go from  R to E.

All that to introduce the idea that these works and their vital performances are more "Expressionistic" than Romantic. There is much in the way of passion, and a harmonic bouquet of brilliant edginess. It is way beyond some overt sentimentality and very Modern in its more diffuse feeling.

The most important thing is that Alla Elana Cohen sounds Russian, then Jewish, and then totally herself.  This is Ms. Cohen's own play of passion that she and Mr. Baverstam exude heartily and concentrically in their readings.

Now that is what you might expect. It is music that I find increasingly relevant to my ears. I love the music and I love how expressively it is performed by the duo. It is very beautiful and I would say too that it is very original. Cohen sneaks into my hearing and I find her important. That is, important to me. You listen and see if you feel the same. It is very much worth your ear-time! Highly recommended.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Peter Garland, The Birthday Party, Aki Takahashi

If you are looking for evidence that Eric Satie's time is now, you don't need to look very far. The Radical Tonality movement often enough eschews a conventional minimalist stance to go back to its roots in the Velvet Gentleman. Or anyway, that is what you can hear at times in their music. Composer Peter Garland  has healthy affections for the long-dead master. Or he does at any rate in his recent album of piano music, The Birthday Party (New World Records 80788-2).

Aki Takahashi does the honors as pianist for this program of three multi-part compositions, "The Birthday Party" (2014) and "Blessingway" (2011-12) for solo piano and "Amulet (After Roberto Bolano)" (2010) for four pianos overdubbed.

These Garland works are more expository than repeating in form. The repetitive parts move forward as they restate. They do not circle in a trance-like experiential zone so much as they reveal a kind of built-for-development poeticism. Everything said is a furtherance of the initial said-phrasing, mostly. There is in that a connection to what Satie sometimes was after.

There is a rich lushness and beauty to the music, a reflection pool of mirroring and remirroring that has a contemplative bent. In that way the development-in-similarity germination takes us past Satie into the more consistently furthered syntax of an after-modern form of musical discourse.

All three works open up vistas and sing melodically and lyrically without resorting to overly romantic or Winstonian hackney. It is a tough path to hew amd remain poetic and relevant. Peter Garland does it well and does it in ways that will give pleasure to the more causal auditor who merely wants pleasantry and nevertheless satisfies the more demanding, more sophisticated music heart-minder.

So go forth and add, multiply or divide with this music. It bears close examination. Ms. Takahashi seems like the perfect exponent as well. Listen and enter an enchanted space!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Michael Winter, Lower Limit

It is a tendency of new music at times to be like a Zen Rock Garden. The first experience of a work can seem sometimes like total plain-i-tude, obvious in its elemental there-quality, yet meant to evoke something more than its sensual presence alone. I tell folks who complain about these things, in visual arts as well as new music, that the point does not rest in facticity at times. It is the concept underlying it that the artist wishes to point you towards. Maybe in the late '60s that could get extreme, where the program describing the work was seemingly and paradoxically more important than the work itself. However that tendency can also lead to an eventual absorption in the music per se in time, provided that there is intrinsic worth there. If not, then not!

Michael Winter's album of compositions, entitled Lower Limit (New World 80798-2), certainly falls under the rubric of a sort of Zen Sandbox in tones. And so what is behind the performed results needs to be considered. Each work is in the form of a musical question that is then given an algorithmic answer, precise in many ways and wide open in others. Like the science behind gravity we can experience it fully without in any way knowing the details of how it works. An object in flight and its downward trajectory has a flow and a beauty without of course operating outside of the realms of lawfulness of weight in gravitational space. So the music on the current album is something like that.

The album gives us four compositions, one in two different versions. The function of instruments are stated and generally then the performers are free to choose, e.g., plucked instruments or sustaining instruments.

"Necklaces (with with quieting rooms)" features guitars in ever varying pulse patterns around a fundamental tone and an electronics sustain constant that also exhibits a wide variability around core centers. The music fascinates in its definitive outlines and shifting grounds and foregrounds.

"Mass and band" has a delicate contrapuntal flavor made out of virginal and harp interplay. It has an eerie sort of ghostly connection with early music forms, yet comes through as acoustically vitalist Modernism in impact.

"Chorale und finely tuned resonators" is a wonderfully sustained multipart meditation for electronically altered guitars--they are subjected to violin-like resonation which gives the tones broad envelopes that mingle together fruitfully.

"Lower limit" utilizes two guitars creating a pulsating untempered tuning series of fundamentals and harmonics in a light feathery texture of continuation and transformation.

"Necklaces (solo version)" for guitar is on the surface the very most elemental and therefore more challenging of the works on the album. There are subtle differences in articulation and sounding that if not followed closely may produce a kind of tedium. One in any given listen either focuses finely on the detailed niceties or loses the thread. It is there however if you take the effort to unravel it. There are microtonal shifts and timbral subtleties to explore here. Or not. Not everybody is going to zero in as needed. My wife hates anything of this kind. Yet she is not unmusical. Her loss.

And so we come to the close of an album that demands of the listener a concentration but then rewards with inner poetic worlds of tone and shade. It may be a bit esoteric for some. Others who take the time for the music to work its way will find a good deal to contemplate and appreciate. So give it a try!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

John Luther Adams, Everything That Rises, JACK Quartet

Everything that lives, laments, everything lost may yet be regained, and Everything That Rises (Cold Blue Music CB 0051), well, that is the latest music, a String Quartet, by John Luther Adams. The remarkable JACK Quartet does the honors.

The music is perhaps more processual than minimalist. There are long foundational notes in the cello and a series of rising scale-ular motifs in the rest of the strings, in delicate untempered intonation. The artful articulation of sequences helps via gloriously rich attacks to give the upper notes transparency and vertical flight as they also create overlapping harmonic sequences with distinct timbral colors that stand out as special.

The movement of notes gives us another possibility in the Radical Tonality camp. It rises in melodo-continuity, not so much in contumacy against the orthodox but as another alternate lawful structure if you will. It has a real cosmic endlessness that feels as if it reaches ever higher. The effect  is well felt though underneath it is physically limited by the cloudcover options of range in the harmonics of free flight.  It never feels that way as you listen, which is what matters. And in the end there are some very high notes to boot!

It spells a reaching ever upwards and so exhilarates in its passage through our musical selves.

The sequence of soundings, as one ever expects from John Luther Adams, is most artful. And the performance and audio quality are world-class as one expects ever from Cold Blue Music releases.

It has a kind of organic-melodic arc that is very pleasing to hear repeatedly if one is willing to suspend judgemental expectations. The sound colors are quite beautiful to behold. For these reasons and for the way the music ever expands one's horizons I do not hesitate to recommend it heartily. Its value to me is as plain as the nose on my face. Enough said.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Vanderbilt Chorale, Music in the Listening Place, Tucker Biddlecombe

The voice was the first instrument? Or maybe a rock pounded on a rock? An imaginary origin tale is of no real account. It is enough to know that in music for voices there is a long ancestral stream that we continue to float down today.

And in the slipstream of it all, something new. It is the Vanderbilt Chorale under Tucker Biddlecombe performing some nine short choral new music or classic modern works, none of them exactly avant garde, but instead tonal with varying degrees of newness versus injections of tradition or just songfulness. The Chorale is part of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. They are well trained and sonorous. The nine works show us versatility as they show something of the range of mainstream choral compositions possible today.

Withal some nine musical scribners grace this anthology. Daniel Read of shapenote hymnophony starts the program on a well preserved archaicist note. Then follows Eric Whitacre, Michael Slayton, Maurice Ravel (we know HIM!),  Aef Houkum, Eliza Giekyson, Jonathan Dove, David Dickau.... Mostly unknown (to me) names. Frankly, not every one of these compositions floats my boat. There are a few that I do not salute as a personal anthem. Nor do I "take the knee" in protest of them. One accepts that there can never be a perfect, happy occlusion of self and all works coming about.

Nevertheless the program has beauty and depth. It is one of those unexpected surprises. Lovers of things choral will most likely savor these nuggets. There is substance and dedicated singing. So what more? Try this out! I suggest you do. Nobody ever was injured listening to new music. Not that I know of. These should rather have a beneficial effect I would think.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Chin-Yi Lin, Zachary Lopes, American Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Bolcom, Corigliano, Ives

The "Americana" strain of Modernist American music began with Charles Ives (1874-1954) and continues through to today. One might note an initial peak in that sort of composition in the primary years of Aaron Copland's output. Yet the folkways of American musical life is sufficiently rich and varied that it is never far from earshot.

We get an ample sampling of some important works with an Americana flavor on American Sonatas for Violin and Piano (MSR Classics MS 1553). Ching-Yi Lin on violin and Zachary Lopes on piano turn in some marvelously fresh performances on three sonatas here. The program begins with Ives and his "Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano" (c. 1914), then moves to William Bolcom (b. 1938) and his "Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano" and finally lands on John Corigliano (b. 1938) and his 1962-63 "Sonata for Violin and Piano."

The Americana element is present in Ives with his hymn tune transformations that modulate unexpectedly and deliciously. Bolcom makes use of two blues motifs that become a part of a Modernist matrix. Corigliano takes folk hymn like melodics and does his own Modernist transformation. Nothing quite sounds deliberately folkish yet the impression lingers nevertheless.

All the works call for a good deal of subtle interpretation. The Corigliano finale and its exuberance sums it up. It is not a music of gloom but more an exploded barn traveling through space. Each part is necessary because a part of an earlier whole. Yet the parts weave in such complex and gratifying ways that even after 20 listens you still have much to discover and affirm.

Lin is a very mellifluous and singing voice on the violin; Lopes spells her with character and depth.

American Sonatas gives much needed air and dimension to three substantial works. What you can hear over time in these performances makes it all very much worthwhile. Recommended.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Laszlo Lajtha, Capriccio - Suite de Ballet, Pecs Symphony Orchestra, Nicolas Pasquet

In the world of modern Hungarian music Laszlo Lajtha (1892-1963) rivalled Dohnanyi, Bartok and Kodaly for the most important composer of the first half of the 20th century. Naxos has embarked on a series of releases covering the composer and his music. This latest one was recorded in 1994 and features the Pecs Symphony orchestra under Nicolas Pasquet. It is the Suite de Ballet Capriccio (Naxos 8.573649).

The 14 short movements give us a more whimsical side of the composer, befitting the lighthearted subject matter set in  1700. It was composed in 1944.

It gives us a glimpse of his non-strictly symphonic output and miniaturist side. It is charming fare, not precisely earth shattering but quite nice to hear.

It is rather surprising given this and the symphony CD   I reviewed a while back (Symphony No. 2, see last January post) that we in the States have known little of this music. Capriccio is neither avowedly Modernist nor is it overly Romantic. Perhaps it is rather Neo-Classical in its own way. It is well crafted, well orchestrated and performed with some zeal and precision. The Hary Janos Suite by Kodaly might me something comparable, except Capriccio sounds less obviously Hungarian.

Lajtha turns out to be essential listening for anyone interested in the Hungarian legacy of last century. There is elegance and straightforward attactiveness in the Capriccio score. It is worth hearing, certainly.