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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Deems Taylor, Three Century Suite, The Lost Music of Deems Taylor, Volume II


Who was Deems Taylor? He first gained fame as a composer, but was well known as a critic and the radio voice of the New York Philharmonic beginning in the 1930s. He was the first American to be commissioned by the Metropolitan opera for his work The King's Henchman, which along with his second opera Peter Ibbetson  enjoyed some success there.

His music has fallen so far out of favor that he is virtually unknown today. Until now. Navona is revisiting some of his music in the series The Lost Music of Deems Taylor,  which notches a Volume 2 with the EP Three Century Suite (Navona 6066).

The work at hand is very tuneful, lighthearted, but as full as a Victorian overstuffed couch, almost sounding like it was written by an American Edward Elgar. The five short movements have a somewhat rustic charm far from the modernism of an Ives or even a Copland.

But indeed this is well written fare, even if it may not blow our 2016 socks off. It is played nicely by the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronsky. Will we see a major Deems Taylor revival? Based on this, probably not. Yet the music stays in the mind and perhaps characterizes something of mainstream US currents we have long left behind. It is nice, if perhaps not especially profound.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Polish Violin Concertos, Bacewicz-Tansman-Spisak-Panufnik, Piotr Plawner, Kammersymphonie Berlin

While Russia was busy producing its distinctive tonal modernists in Stravinky, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, etc., Poland had its Bacewicz, Symanowski, Panufnik, and shared with Russia the honor of producing Weinberg.

Anyone who knows less of the Polish contributions to the art  (or for that matter is simply looking for good 20th century music) should listen to Polish Violin Concertos (Naxos 8.573496), an excellent presentation of four works with Piotr Plawner skillfully doing the violin solo honors and the Kammersymphonie Berlin under Jurgen Bruns providing the lively backdrop.

These are very memorable works from the hands and minds of Grazyna Bacewicz ("Violin Concerto No. 1" 1937), Alexandre Tansman ("Cinq pieces pour violon et petit orchestre" 1930), Michal Spisak ("Andante and Allegro for Violin and String Orchestra" 1954) and Andrzej Panufnik ("Violin Concerto" 1971).

The balance of solo violin expressions and orchestral utterances of distinction is nearly perfect thanks to the near ideal performances and the highly developed thematic developments of the composers involved.

You may not know some or even any of these names, but after hearing this recording several times you will appreciate each and every one of them for the quality and liveliness of the music.

There is much to recommend this volume, and nothing to regret. Stuff your stocking with this one!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Adam Levin, 21st Century Spanish Guitar 2, Balada, Torres, etc.

Spanish guitar technique has evolved over the centuries such that there is now a cohesive body of ways of attacking and/or simultaneously sounding one or more of the nylon strings. In our century those techniques continue to expand in breadth at the same time as the compositions reflect the vast development of melodic-harmonic possibilities present in the overall classical music oeuvre. There seems in fact to be a reflowering of the music today, a most welcome development.

We can hear nine examples in 21st Century Spanish Guitar 2 (Naxos 8.573409) played exceptionally well by guitarist Adam Levin as the second volume of a projected four in all. Eight of the nine are in first recordings. All were composed in the present decade.

Leonardo Balada's "Caprichos No.11" a reworking of five of Granados' "Danzas espanolas," opens the program with a flair. From there we are treated to interesting and worthy pieces by known and less-known Spanish composers Jesus Torres, Marc Lopez Godoy, Anton Garcia Abril, Luis de Pablo, Eduardo Soutullo, Jacobo Duran-Loriga, Benet Casablancas and Juan Manuel Ruiz.

These are compelling modern abstractions with traditional folk and improvisational feels mixed in with bold dashes of the contemporary. All but one were written especially for Levin and are dedicated to him. He returns the favor with dedicated, intricately realized performances that do full justice to the music.

This is indispensable listening for anyone interested in modernity in general and the Spanish guitar in particular. Volume two alone is a landmark collection in itself. Do not miss this one!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Eric Berlin, Calls and Echoes, American Sonatas for Trumpet and Piano


The cold months of the year and especially the holiday season seem like a good time for brass music. That may be personal, as I grew up with Gabrieli and  Handel's "The Trumpet Shall Sound" as part of my high school music program in Decembers and I kept up with it later on.

So an album by Eric Berlin, "American Sonatas for Trumpet and Piano," aka Calls and Echoes (MSR 1395) is sounding very good to me just about now. Berlin is a fine virtuoso well matched for the four dynamic and stirring works included on disk. His piano counterpart, Nadine Shank, seconds him with idiomatic and dramatic readings, and so the two render the music quite nicely indeed.

These four sonatas come to us in a modern neo-classical style. Each of them ventures meaningfully into the bravura and exploratory pathways that the trumpet-piano pairing suggests. James Stephenson's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (2001), Stanley Friedman's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (1995), Kent Kennan's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (1956) and finally Robert Suderberg's "Chamber Music VII: Ceremonies for Trumpet and Piano" (1984) are works of substance and one might say heroic qualities. By that I mean they demand a sort of heroic ability on the part of the soloist which Eric Berlin brings to us in all fullness.

This may have come out several years ago but it is every bit as vibrant now as then. Anyone who loves the trumpet played well and the neo-classical modern idiom will be very pleased with this one, I would certainly say. There is something timeless about the works and performances, yet they blow some warmth into your musical soul that is quite fitting for the winter months!

Very recommended.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Vincent D'Indy, Symphony No. 2, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jean-Luc Tingaud


If you had to put a very short list of composers responsible for the French modern school in chronological order it might appropriately read Franck-D'Indy-Debussy-Ravel-Messiaen. Some might have trouble with the fact that Faure, Milhaud, and Poulenc were missing, or Boulez, or any number of others, but the main idea is that Vincent D'Indy (1851-1931) was as important to the modern French School's post-late-romantic beginnings as anyone, yet his music does not bask in the sunlight of continual performances and recordings around the world.

But, no fear. Naxos has released a representative assortment of D'Indy orchestral works headed by his Symphony No. 2 (8.573522). Jean-Luc Tingaud conducts the Royal National Orchestra in a set of dynamic, very serviceable readings that bring out the orchestrational excellence of the works and provide a clear roadmap through the thickets and twists of D'Indy's mature musical mind.

The Symphony (1902-03) at first might not strike one as revolutionary in its orchestral language, but close listening brings out the contrasts between folkish themes and proto-impressionist, dappled pictorial orchestration. For that matter Wagner's forest music from "Siegfried" was as much pre-impressionist as this D'Indy music could be, but then D'Indy established a French precedent that those that came after could identify as a possible national-modernist trait.

What matters now is that his music as heard in the Symphony, his melancholy "Souvenirs" (1906), the somewhat exotic "Istar" (1896), and the Prelude to his opera "Fervaal" (1889-95) offers us a snapshot in time of  what was progressive music. If we listen with open ears, we can hear something of what came after but also appreciate D'Indy as fully integral, a fully convincing musical personality in his own right.

So this is a nice volume to hear and listen closely to, well done and filled with D'Indy's special music. Give it a hearing!


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sergei Bortkiewicz, Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12, Alfonso Soldano

The 20th Century was a high-water mark for classical music, with the recorded medium greatly expanding our ability to hear a great number of works by composers we might otherwise never have had a chance to experience. That situation continues in our present-day world. And we continue to uncover composers and works that have generally been unavailable to us previously.

Today we have an example in the music of Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), whose piano pieces are nicely represented in Russian Piano Music, Vol. 12 (Divine Art 25142). Alfonso Soldano authoritatively mans the piano chair for a full program of solo works that cover the period of 1908 to 1946.

Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukraine, trained for a musical career in St. Petersburg and Leipzig, settled in Berlin. During WWI he was deported and lived again in Russia. The Revolution and WWII found him again fleeing his various homes until the end of the war allowed him to settle one last time in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1952.

Perhaps these continued dislocations can explain why his music has been all-but-forgotten today. That and a rather stubborn will to remain within a late romantic style.  Today we care less that someone did not follow the trends and fashions of his or her times, and the music sounds surprisingly fresh, somewhere between Rachmaninov and early Scriabin, yet continuously original in its thematic-melodic creativity. So the end result sounds not so much derivative as an integral voice, another pianistic force within the style-set.

Soldano makes a convincing case for these works, with virtuoso dramatics, sparkle, shimmer and dash.

I find in Bortkeiwicz as presented here a real discovery, not in some history-changing sense but in the quality and originality of the music. Bravo!  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ross Harris, Symphony No. 5, Violin Concerto

New Zealand's Ross Harris (b. 1945) is a happy surprise of a composer for me. The Naxos (8.573532) CD at hand gives us poetic readings of his Violin Concerto  and his Symphony No. 5, two expressionistic gems handled beautifully by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under Gary Walker for the former and Eckehard Stier for the latter. Ilya Gringolts sounds inspired in the solo violin role and mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell is glowingly moody in the solo vocal part of the Symphony.

Harris adroitly negotiates the terrain between tonality and atonality in both works. The Violin Concerto (2010) gives the soloist lyrical-mysterioso passages alternating with a bracing turbulence and the orchestra follows and expands the moods in ways that remind favorably of Berg's Concerto and its depth without in anyway mimicking it.

The Symphony No. 5 (2013) sets three poems of Panni Palasti that recall her immersion in wartime Budapest during the Nazi siege there during WWII. Opening and closing adagios of austerely striking beauty frame directly communicating settings of the poems, which in turn are set off by two vividly depictive scherzos that portray wartime violence and horror.

Harris is a composer of substantial orchestral nuance and freshly thematic substance. The two works paired in this release enjoy dramatically moving and crisp readings that set a high benchmark.

Harris is a modernist of real stature! Highly recommended.