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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mick Rossi, 160

The modern-day studio set up has made it possible for one person via overdubbing to become his-her own ensemble, playing all the parts and providing the impetus for a new music personally and directly. The digital platform has made such creations virtually infinite, which has then created a need to know how far to take it, when to stop.

Mick Rossi knows. He was inspired to lay down an entire album of such self-expressions, which we have happily on the CD 160 (Innova 954). This is music that combines adventurous new music/quasi-post-electronic outpourings with a rhythmic drive that is at times infectiously rock-related.

For precedent Frank Zappa comes to mind in his later days. He too created a self-mobilized sound via his elaborate sampling-synthesis set up. The result was brilliant Zappa. Mick Rossi might be said to follow in Zappa's footsteps, but the result is quite originally his own, with its own sort of brilliance.

Mick for this set of 15 short, interrelated vignettes mans a piano, prepared piano, Farfisa, harmonium, drums, percussion, glockenspiel, guzheng, mbira, sampler, and dog toy. The album is a reworking of music Rossi did for the film Albi's Oboe.

There may still be purists who look down on this sort of virtual reality. I am not one of them. The point is the musical result and the process, while of course is critical, it is not in the end defining.

160 is filled with absorbing sequences of multi-part developments, made pleasingly retro-like through certain motifs, the Farfisa parts, microscopic detunings between instruments and a kind of analog ambience.

But for all that this is a step into a rock-new-music zone that is both convincing and forward moving. It is complexly contemporary and foot-tappingly immediate.

Since I too delve into self-realized musical terrains often enough I regard Mick as an important and very worthy colleague. His 160 gives us a most excellent listen, a pioneering adventure into electroacoustic futurism. Repeated hearings create a joy of recognition, which all important new music should be capable of. It is music to dwell inside, to make over onto one's musico-memory template.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven, Susanne Kessel, Piano, Volume 1

Beethoven will never leave us, come what may. He and Bach have captured especially the world's heart and soul, have stirred our imaginations, made us look onto our earth or into what we can see of the firmament and think, "we can be more than we seem."

And so it is right that pianist Susanne Kessel has launched an ambitious international composition project of which we see the first fruits here, namely 250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven, and its first installment as Vol. 1 (WDR: The Cologne Broadcasts ppfb1 2-CDs). Here we have the first 25. Bonn pianist Kessel aims to have all 250 commissioned and in hand by 2020, which marks Beethoven's 250th birthday!

In the first installment all 25 are short, bagatelle-like, making use of Beethoven motifs or not as freely decided by the composers, but in some way channeling what Beethoven has meant to each. The music is captivating, ranging from a high modernism to a neo-post-wherever-we-are eclecticism.

The sheer diversity of approach is given concentrated poetic expression by Susanne Kessel, who makes of each piece a thing of dramatic beauty, or whimsical musicality, or heightened presence, or all-at-once.

The continual common denominator is the Kessel pianism, her readiness to put herself into whatever any given composer has creatively crafted. You may recognize some of the first 25 composers' names or you may not. The point is their point-in-time contemporaneity and how they choose to put into musical terms their debt to Beethoven and his revolutionizing of the role of the piano in the music that came to him and to those many generations of composers who came after.

In the end the first 25 of the composers give us a whirlwind of possibilities and remind us just how central Susanne Kessel is to the music of our time, marking and making vividly present our real-time devotion to the very new and the once new.

This is a central volume and a most promising beginning for such a worthy undertaking. Even if this were to be the only volume produced, which we know will not happen because more is on the way, it would (and does) stand on its own as a triumph of concept and content, masterful performances of fascinating and moving music. But of course there will be more. It all starts here. Listen, by all means.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Jerome Combier, Gone, Ensemble Calm

Some ultra-contemporary composers write music so timbrally striking that the once sharp divide between electronic and instrumental music is radically blurred. Ensemble Calm negotiates the realms of color and shadow and creates a unerringly vivid picture of such a music, the music of Jerome Combier. Gone (Aeon AECD 1651) brings to the listener a program of five Combier compositions that challenge our everyday assumptions of what instruments are "supposed" to sound like, and, for that matter how they are supposed to interact with electronic sounds.

The chamber plus electronic pieces form the beginning and end points of the album, but the middle works are no less exploratory in their compelling acoustical mass. Ensemble Calm forms a mid-sized chamber ensemble, or a mini-chamber orchestra. There is a flautist, a clarinetist, pianist, guitarist, harpist, and a string quartet altogether.

The various Combier works call for various instrumental combinations, making entirely coherent demands on the players in a body of extended techniques, all of which results in a series of stunning sound-color sculptures.

"Dawnlight" (2015) opens the program with a long sound tapestry for flute, piano, violin, cello and electronics. This is music that travels beyond tonality or its lack to enter complex relationships between clearly pitched, sonically complex multiple pitch emanations and relatively unpitched percussive outbursts. One might say the same for all the works in this program.

In fact the huge potential vocabulary of electronic sounds matches the sonic variabilities of the instrumental utterances in brilliantly contrasting groupings and unexpected regroupings.

The middle part of the program brings three purely instrumental works to our ears. "Noir gris" (2007) for string trio, "Dog eat dog" (2014) for cello and guitar, and "Terra d'ombra" (2012-2015) for piano, harp and cello each has a unique and startling sonance. There are rich universes of dramatically narrative timbral relationships that unfold with unexpected and endlessly fascinating regular-irregularity.

Finally the 20-minute title work "Gone" (2010) for clarinet, piano, string trio and electronics unleashes the most sustained new timbral world of all. There are few living composers that could match this work for its startlingly inimitable palette of sounds and sequences.

In short Jerome Combier in Gone brings us signature high-modernist music with a brilliance that is virtually unparalleled in new music today. Ensemble Calm brings their considerable contemporary technical prowess to bear on some of the most challenging instrumental works extant. They make of each of them a poetic totality, a remarkable achievement. Most importantly they bring us a beautiful realization of Jerome Combier's considerably prescient musical vision.

Unforgettable music. Essential listening!

Friday, March 24, 2017

ACME, Thrive on Routine

ACME stands for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Based on the CD at hand, I must say I am impressed. I speak of ACME's Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus 92211). On it we hear a nicely chosen selection of modern/postmodern works occupying an ambient, radical tonality turf.

The group as a whole consists of two violins, a viola, cello, piano, celeste, and two vibraphones. Clarice Jensen is the Artistic Director.

In all five works are represented, each one a journey into tone color and depth of field.

Calen Burhams, the violist in the ensemble, gives us his Jahrzeit for string quartet. It is beautifully resonant with an atmospheric born of harmonics, pizzicato and sparely applied but lush harmonies. The ostinato pattern repeated and played on top of reminds of Glass perhaps, but most appealingly rises into its own depth of expression. I get a strong pastoral feeling that fills me with a nostalgia for springs and summers past--but that is perhaps entirely personal.

Next up is a solo cello work by Caroline Shaw, "in manus tuas," played by Clarice Jensen. The colorful ambiance of the work fits in and follows naturally with Burhans' opening. Pizzicato and arpeggiated bowing establishes a post-Bachian presence that wears nicely.

Caroline returns with a solo piano work (played by Timo Andres), "Gustave Le Gray." It has a touching, yearning motif that continues to repeat and open out with developmental graduals in a moody fashion. It is based on Chopin's "Mazurka, Op. 17" and motives from that work blend in various ways with Caroline's own inventions.

Timo Andres then gives us his string quartet work in four movements, "Thrive On Routine." It musically describes Charles Ives' morning routine of early rising, digging in his potato patch, playing some from Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" and so forth. The music has a playful deliberation that to me expresses  Ives' continually inventive being as contrasted with the recurring sameness of his morning ritual sequence.

The final work features the full ensemble in a flowering version of John Luther Adams 1999 opus "In A Treeless Place, Only Snow." On the aesthetic level it has a feeling of a sort of enlightened haiku thoughtfulness expressing the suchness of nature. The repeating and intermingling strands work together for a very processual, unified result. It is remarkable, evocative, realized with great sympathy and affinity with the composer.

The album comes, as is often the case with Sono Luminus releases, with two disks--one a standard CD in vibrant stereo, the other a Blu-Ray disk with 5:1 playback capability. I do not have Blu-Ray but I can imagine that this sort of program would sound ravishing in the expanded aural space.

After hearing this a number of times I come out of the program with an enthusiastic two thumbs up. It is nothing short of lovely. ACME is off to a wonderful start!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vyacheslav Artyomov, Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World, National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, Vladimir Ashkenazy

From the brilliant musical mind of Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov comes another volume of orchestral works including the monumental Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World (Divine Art 25143), very stirringly performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia.

I reviewed another volume on these pages several months ago (see search box above) which was nothing short of revelatory. This new volume confirms that first impression. Artyomov is a major figure on the Russian new music scene, with an explosively modern pallet of mystical, mysterioso universes of sound, a basic sensibility that goes back to Scriabin and Messiaen but then carries it forward to today with true originality.

Two substantial works comprise this additional volume: the title work "Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World" (1990/2002) and "Ave Atque Vale" (1997), for percussion and orchestra. A brief bonus work closes off the program, "Ave, Crux Alba" (1994/2012) for choral group and orchestra.

The Symphony has a vast spatial expanse as its foundational premise. The orchestra bursts forward with huge modern clusters and quieter introspective interludes. It is landmark in its dramatic thrust, sounding great as a CD and one can imagine even more spectacular live.

"Ave Atque Vale" has a singular role for solo percussion, handled deftly by Rostislav Shatayevsky. An immersively contrasting  aural dimension is the way forward, marking out yet another, more reflective but no less enthralling spatial-sonic universe.

"Ave, Crux Alba" ends the CD with a brief but memorably anthemic lyricism.

Like the volume previously discussed here, this one beautifully carves out for us a celestial mysteriousness and at times a hugeness that holds its own as some of the most bracing and original music of our times. Artyomov is a voice for today, ultra-modern, futuristic and vibrant in its consistent aural brilliance. Get this one! Get both!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dvorak, Symphony No. 9, From the New World, A Hero's Song, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orch., Krzysztof Urbanski

One of my happiest first experiences in classical music was buying and hearing Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, From the New World. I was still pretty new to the classical literature. I found a version that was affordable to me (I did not have much spending money of course as a kid) and it turned out to be faithful to the spirit of the music (in retrospect). I played it for my mom and she loved it, too. Like many of us in the US, we were flattered that a great composer took the time to visit and leave for us a masterpiece. Of course it no doubt energized the composers active in the US at the time and more so later, giving them the energy and courage to forge their own way.

The popularity of the work here is such that my friend Marc many years ago applied for a cashier's job at a local Sam Goody record store, and one of the few questions they asked him was "who composed the New World Symphony?" In those days the chains even sought to carry and sell the more fleetingly popular fare and to pronounce Dvorak's name properly was a sign as well that you knew enough about things to help customers.

Well the years have ticked by at an advanced rate and I do wonder if the 9th sells well anymore, if there is a populism that has brains and knowledge? Suffice to say that for me the 9th still rings beautifully in my ear. And when I hear the movement based on the spiritual "Going Home," I remember my mom and how she loved this symphony.

A recent move has stripped me bare of most of my vinyl and Dvorak's 9th was among those. I actually did not much care for the version I had ended up with, so when the Krzysztof Urbanski and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra came up as something to review (Alpha-Classics 289), I eagerly jumped at it.

This is a singing version with everything going for it. The only aspect that I had to adjust to was the highly variable dynamic level, which perhaps came about as microphone placement was some distance from the orchestra? Not sure there, but in any event once you turn up the volume a bit all comes into focus.

The connection of this symphony genetically with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony has hit me more forcefully as I listen to the NDR--and perhaps it is the fine definition of the strings in relation to the winds in the overall balance and Urbanski's painstaking attention to getting that phrasing-dynamics right that has brought the lineage connection to my ears that much more readily. In any case the balance and phrasing brings out the beauty of the totality and how countrified the music is in Dvorak's special way. The "Going Home" movement takes advantage of that as well as one might hope for. And no reading is complete of course without a ravishing treatment of the section. I can hear my mom responding again, wherever she may be up there.

Urbanski gives us an unhurried, detailed take on the entire symphony. It makes one feel that Dvorak did manage to capture then what made America great and it wasn't walls or tax cuts for the rich, crippling the "meals-on-wheels" program, or for that matter slavery. There was a human-human decency in the US at its best and a human-land relationship of respect and care when things were right, and I think Dvorak managed to put that into his music.

As a nice extra, the album includes the lesser known but worthy Dvorak tone poem "A Hero's Song." Urbanski and the NDR give us an impassioned reading of that, too.

Well now I would say that if you are looking for a very living version of the "New World Symphony," or one more if you have a few, this performance stands out as very fulfilling. It reminds me of what enthralled me about the work when I was 14!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Johan Halvorsen, Carl Nielsen, Violin Concertos, Henning Kraggerud, Malmo Symphony, Bjarte Engeset

If one gets a certain distance from the origin period of one's love for music, one generally finds oneself being exposed alternatingly between the known, the known re-presented, and the relative unknown. So today I am pleased to express my receptive thoughts on such a mixture: violin virtuoso Henning Kraggerud and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra under Bjarte Engeset giving us a program of Violin Concertos by Johan Halvorsen and Carl Nielsen (Naxos 8.573738). Added as a short bonus is Johan Svendsen's "Romance."

Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) was during his lifetime an internationally acclaimed violinist, conductor and composer. His Norwegian roots entered his musical language in a general way, and we can hear that readily within the late romantic Scandinavian idiom of his Violin Concerto. It was first performed in 1909 by Canadian violin virtuoso Kathleen Parlow, then only 18 years old. The work was greeted with an enthusiastic audience reception in the four performances Parlow gave the work between 1909-1910. In was never performed again during the composer's lifetime, and he apparently burned what he thought were all copies of the work on his retirement in 1929. That was a mistake.

But happily Kathleen Parlow had retain a copy of the complete score and parts, which turned up in 2015. Kraggurd premiered the first present-day concert performance in 2016 and on the heels of that made the world premiere recording of the work which we can now appreciate here. It is a substantial bundle of rhapsodic demeanor, folk color and a definite "Northern romantic" quality. Kraggurd and the Malmo Symphony conducted by Bjarte Engeset, give us a spirited, idiomatic reading fully worthy of the work's substance and charm. And so we have something of great interest in fully fleshed out form.

The Halvorsen performance certainly makes this release worth pursuing in itself. But then we have the Nielsen Concerto nicely done.  If you do not have or have not heard this aspect of the Nielsen complete opus you no doubt should.

Johan Svendsen's "Romance" is a sweet surprise. It is northern lyric rhapsodicy in a fine fettle.

And all-in-all this is a thoughtful combination, well worth the good Naxos price. Hear it!