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Monday, January 22, 2018

Villa-Lobos, Symphony No 1 "O Imprevisto," Symphony No 2 "Ascensao," Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Isaac Karabtchevsky

The early Modernist opening decades of the 20th century were by no means predetermined by what came before. Sure, the advent of a thoroughgoing chromaticism and the edges of tonality could logically be inferred from Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and the general tenor of Late Romanticism. Nothing was inevitable, however. So the rise of a key Brazilian composer was not expected. And yet Villa-Lobos came on the scene and gradually provided his own unique folk-based chromato-dia-Modernist approach.

We can go back to a freeze-timeframe and experience the two symphonies be began in 1916 and 1917 (with the latter taking its final form only in 1944). Isaac Karabtchevsky and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra allow us a focused look at Symphony No 1 "O Imprevisto" and Symphony No 2 "Ascensao" (Naxos 8.573829) as part of their complete symphony project.

Anyone who already loves Villa-Lobos as I do will find more undiscovered treasure in these early opuses. They have the germinal elements that would become more refined and orchestrally more transparent and luminous in his maturity. And in the early phase here there is perhaps a naive quality that conjoins with folkish-expressive diatonics and some modernist chromatics for a rather buoyant and disarming effect. The second is nearly twice as long as the first at 48 minutes. It is the more expanded development of the implications of his initial symphonic strategy.

In no way are these works a rusty-rustic opening salvo. They cohere as a first stylistic emmination, lush and evocative even then of his kind of Brazilian-modern rhapsodistic unpretension.

Any Villa-Lobos lover will find these symphonies a welcome and enlightening addition. The performances are well in hand and give us a quite decent idea of what the scores contain. So do not hesitate if these seem interesting to you.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Frederic Chopin, Notturno, Eliane Rodrigues

To close out a very hectic week and to bring in a Friday vibe, I'd like to highlight an album that has grown on me with successive listens to become something I welcome very happily each time I hear it. It is Brazilian born pianist Eliane Rodrigues and her ravishing interpretations of some monumental Chopin, those "Nocturnes." Notturno (Navona 6123, 2 CDs) covers all the "Nocturnes" plus the first and fourth "Ballades."

It is hard to imagine any piano music in the later half of the 19th Century on in the classical realm that was not influenced by the lyrical Chopin, certainly Liszt through Ravel but onwards from there to the modernism and postmodernism pianism, any music that still gives out with the singing cantabile style he did so much to put forward.

For the Romantics there was magic in the night. It was the principal source of poetic mystery, of aesthetic yearning, of the ineffable landscape of dreams and time endlessly stretching backwards to fable, myth, and a tide of feelings of awe in the face of Creation.

The Notturno captured the dream-filled night like no piano music before it. And as we listen today it remains a singular moment in the piano literature. Never was so much lyricism packed into every space, never did the piano sing quite like this before!

Like some others of my generation I poured myself into Chopin with a comprehensive LP set of the complete (or nearly complete) Chopin piano opus. Some versions of things were better than others. It was all Vox stuff. The recordings often enough reflected the kind of bombastic renditions typical of the late '50s-early '60s. Not all of it. It did give me a decent introduction to the Chopin all-of-it and so it was a good thing. And I could afford it.

Of course those versions were in no sense the all-in-all, as I quickly discovered. And now....Listening to Eliane Rodrigues and her way with the "Nocturnes" I find myself transported into a world of sounds as Chopin no doubt heard it. In the hands of Eliane Rodrigues all the poetic dreaminess comes into play. The extraordinarily sensitive performances made me say to myself nearly involuntarily, "only a woman can sound like this!" I started. Really? No, not really. Still, perhaps it is more apt to say instead that "only Eliane Rodrigues sounds quite this way!" That I find is true. The rhapsodizing and the breath-like rubato does not have a trace of sentimental affect. It sings with brilliance and makes for a near ideal set of performances. She may not be as technically perfect as some of the old greats, but she makes up for that with a spontaneity of life-born expression that rings true, as true as any version you are likely to hear.

Keep in mind that there is no advantage for me in saying this, or anything else on here. It is all about the music and not about some personal gain. I speak my feelings fully. If this performance rings my bells, I also do recommend you check it out and see if it doesn't do the same for you. We do not live forever, but wonderful music gives us some glimpse of human immortality. This Chopin, this is something beyond our time or any other. Do try this out. See for yourself.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Tchaikovsky, Pathetique, Symphony No. 6, David Bernard, Park Avenue Symphony

With the premier of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" in 1893, the curtain in many ways triumphantly came down on the Russian Romantic movement as at the same time the stage was set for the rise of Modernism via Rimsky Korsakoff and then of course Stravinsky, Prokofiev and in time Shostakovitch. That the extraordinary melodic gift of Tchaikovsky would carry over as one of the signature traits of Russian Modernism is very much the case. And it could be argued that the "Pathetique" was the exemplar of such tendencies, the masterpiece of the art in the late 19th Century.

There is a recent recording of the Pathetique (Recursive Classics 2059912) by David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. But first off, what of the music itself? 

There has been a tendency in musical thinking from the Romantic era onwards to ascribe the affective content of a work to a putative emotional state of the composer when he wrote the music. So for example Stravinsky's "Rite" was in part a product of a toothache, and so too the "Pathetique" has been ascribed to Tchaikovsky's gloomy state of mind as moving toward his death when he wrote the work. We tend to allow writers some separation between written content and state of mind. So fortunately no one to my knowledge has ever tried to tie King Lear to Shakespeare's mood. The idea of the tragedy in literature permits a somber turn of plot in a work without having literally to insist that it is a direct correlate to the outlook of the writer. We can have in film today a macabre horror film that may coexist with auteur mood while not ascribing a causal relation. Why then in music must we be so grossly literal? It is a tragedy of the Modernist movement that lay listeners often are frightened away from a very progressive work with the notion that the composer must be him or herself frightening! 

So the "Pathetique" and the narrative that tried to tie biography and work into an expression of one to the other. In the end it does not matter. Not for the music, that stands alone in the end as a work of great passion, perhaps, but the greatness needs no literal connection with the life.

And so we get the wondrous passage in the symphony from directly tragic opening and closing movements of grievous lament with the two ravishing inner movements with their irresistible rhythmic momentum and incredible melodic power.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony as their name suggests is not the sizable romantic outfit that might be expected to perform the "Pathetique." There are less strings to be heard, yet the sweep of affect in those instruments are still to be heard and properly so. What seems especially good about such a reading is the more out front mix of strings and winds-brass, with the latter becoming a bit more central to key passages.

Snappy crispness and lush, sad fogs come through nicely. And some of the soggy bloat of the large orchestra in some of the less stellar performances is avoided completely.

What we get is perhaps a version for our times, no less affective but perhaps less fully drenched in emotive despair. I find it convincing. If it may not be the absolute benchmark of performances, it has its very own elan and can be enjoyed alongside the more string-centric performances to give refreshment and to allow a re-experience of the music's profound lifeway presence. So check this one out by all means.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Piano Works, Alfonso Soldano

There is no shortage of great 20th Century Italian Composers. In the States at least, some of the greats are not as widely known as their stature would suggest. An excellent example is Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). He lived a good amount of time, was both prolific and original. Yet not nearly enough works are performed with any regularity in this locale. Why?

His biography supplies some details. A Sephardic Jew in Florence, he was forced to leave Italy with the rise of Mussolini. In 1939 he entered the US, one of many brilliant immigrant composers to make the exodus to the New World. Like some important others he ended up as a film composer, which was then and is now ever a mixed blessing for the compositional arts. He was in no way relegated to obscurity then. But his fate in the present has not entirely allowed him much in the way of immortality. What matters is our own readiness to hear more of his music.

An excellent opportunity arises in the recent CD release Piano Works (Divine Art 25152). From the "Italian Ravel" comes some eight compositional entities, a few in their world premier recordings. The liner notes tell us that the solo piano corpus of works have all but been ignored. It was Aldo Ciccolini who discovered that the works have an incredible charm and fluency. Pianist Alfonso Soldano gains an insider's vision of the music and transfers what he so wonderfully understands into our musical selves via the recording.

There is a true wealth of subtly shimmering, poised and grandly sounding melodic-harmonic brilliance. This is music of a very high caliber, a treasure trove of fantastically pianistic utterance. Alfonso Soldano seems the ideal vehicle for these works.

I cannot recommend this one highly enough. Or perhaps I just did? Just listen.

Monday, January 15, 2018

John Cage, Toshio Hosokawa, Frozen Time, Dominik Susteck

Those in various winter zones out there right now can affirm that the season has been most intemperate. What better a time, then, to talk about an album entitled Frozen Time (Wergo 73682). It is Dominik Susteck in a program of most engaging high modernist organ music. We get a look at three composers and their realizations of the instrument's sonic potential. It is very much about extended techniques and sound color atmospherics in a firmly avant new music sense.

The ability of the organ to endlessly sustain is a factor in all the music. But then what organ work does not make use of this trait in some way? It is implied in the very notion of massive organ acoustics in a large space.

And so we have music by John Cage ("organ2/aslsp"). Toshio Hosokawa ("cloudscape, sen iv") and the organist himself (carillons I-III").

So what of this music? Necessary for understanding Maestro Susteck's choice of works and their interpretation is a grounding in a sense of the traditional aesthetic regarding music. Time is a special category that helps distinguish traditional Japanese from Western musical stances. For the Japanese tradition the fundamental organizing principal is the breath. The length of phrases and their movement are not about pulses in time, but rather that which can and should be articulated in one full breath as a unit. Music imitates nature in ways that surround the fundamental breath of life.

John Cage in this regard often through his Zen Buddhist outlook brings something of the Japanese aesthetic to avant Western music. Is it a sort of breath-event for him? Not precisely. The music is rather an idealized model of nature, yet also as non-intentional, is something produced by nature. It is more complex than that. Nevertheless his organ work "Organ2/aslp" makes of the music itself and its realization like a roadmap to a territory, the landscape produced by the inner state of the performer in conjunction with the open yet specific demands of the score. Aslp stands for "as slow as possible," slow being here a relational unfolding of the sounds, the roadmap being proportional to the realized performance. Music here is a spatial thing, a sound-spatial realization of the proportionality Cage sets out. Hence it is not quite temporal and hence the title of the CD Frozen Time. These ideas are too complex fully to reproduce here.

The works that follow by Toshio Hosokawa and Dominik Susteck are other ways of establishing musical spaces.

The music as sounded by Dominik Susteck involves landscapes of emanation. The traversal of course implies a temporal presence in the Kantian sense, but the element itself is not primary to the music.

It is fascinating to me how this music functions on one plane as a series of mnemonic devices for a meta-natural state of being. That only if you care to hear it that way. You can bypass it and just listen, too.

Altogether the music presents provocative sound hermetics. Each invites the listener to experience the sounds as she or he would traverse an earthen or astral territory. We take a series of trips that are as much about the music's "pointing to" as they are about the sound sequences themselves. In this way we feel a more non-Western deconcretization of time and the intrusion of natural allocations. It is not necessary to grasp all of this to appreciate the compositions. They fit by their existence into what the modernist project makes available to the organ as instrument.

For all these reasons and for the quality of the sound production itself I expect any adventuresome soul would gain as I did a point of view about modern-as-beyond-modernist-dogmatics and so too a sensual envelopment of sound art. I recommend this one!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Donatoni, Boulez, Lutoslawski, Argot, Veronique Mathieu, Violin, Jasmin Arakawa, Piano

The present-day modern era has seen a great rise in literature for the solo violin. With some notable exceptions in the romantic era, there has not been such a flowering of this instrumental choice since the times of Johann Sebastian Bach. Today's release includes two such works, well played by Veronique Mathieu.

Pianist Jasmin Arakawa joins Veronique for a third series of works. The three composer's offerings together comprise Argot (Navona 6105).

First up is the title work "Argot: Due Pezzi per Violino" (1979) by Franco Donatoni (1927-2000), one of the premiere modernists on the Italian scene after WWII. It is a work of demanding agility for the player, both exploratory and filled with flowing musical syntactics. Ms. Mathieu carries the day in a very musical yet spectacular manner.

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) I imagine needs no introduction to readers of these pages. His "Anthems I Pour Violin Seul" (1992) has the rigor and energy one might expect from the composer in his later period.

From there we move to three choice Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) works for violin and piano."Recitativo E Arioso for Violin and Piano" (1951), "Subito for Violin and Piano" (1992) and "Partita for Violin and Piano"(1984) give us the Lutoslawski depth and expression in compact terms. They are works that carry with them some of the composer's greatness. All are fully worthy of the loving attention Mathieu and Arakawa give them.

Mathieu shines brightly on this program. Arakawa tends well a second flame as brilliant as the first in the second half of the proceedings. All listeners to the modernist excellence to be heard so abundantly will surely find in this album much to treasure. The Lutoslawski makes it all worthwhile; the Donatoni and Boulez give us pause and show us vibrant possibilities we are glad to contemplate and experience.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Michael G. Cunningham, An Arc of Quartets

Those talents who keep on producing despite less exposure than ideal may find themselves heard widely at last. US native Michael G. Cunningham (b. 1937) seems an excellent example. He has been composing since 1958. Navona Records has been releasing recordings of his music for a while. After five of mostly orchestral works we now have a fine chamber gathering entitled An Arc of Quartets (Navona 6081 2-CDs). It is the complete quartet output by Cunningham to date, from the No. 1 of 1959 to the No. 7 of 2016.

If it sounds patronizing to say I was surprised to hear such fine music, I only mean that any new (to me) body of quartets faces the stiffest challenge from the past quartet giants of the repertoire, obviously the late Beethoven quartets, then so many after...Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Bartok, Shostakovich, Ligeti, Carter, and on (leaving out some for now). After all the string quartet has risen to a medium where some of the most "serious" and uncompromised music has been made up to our own times. Can Michael G. Cunningham meet this challenge and win us over on his own terms? The answer, very happily, is yes.

All seven are well played by, variously, the Sirius Quartet, the Moravian Quartet, the Pedroia Quartet, the New England Quartet, and the Millennium Quartet.

All the quartets but the first have descriptive subtitles, "Three Satires" (2), "Partitions" (3), "Interlacings" (4),  "Aggregates" (5), "Digital Isorhythm" (6), "Back Home" (7). The descriptive phrases give notice that the music is "about" something more than abstraction, that the intricate and moving high modernist post-Bartokian style has a human subject at its base.

These are quartets in the grand modern tradition if you will. Deeply intricate, interactive, and probing are all of them. It is a milestone set where we may not expect to find them, only because Cunningham is for most of us only now emerging into our musical life.

I do recommend this for any modern string quartet enthusiast. It rightfully holds its own and seems destined to take its place in chamber gems of our modern period. Get this one by all means.