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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Laszlo Lajtha, Symphony No. 2, Pecs Symphony Orchestra, Nicolas Pasquet

Laszlo Lajtha (1892-1963)? A leading Hungarian composer from the first half of the 20th century. All is the pity that many of us in the States do not know his music well. His nine symphonies and numerous string quartets are what he is most remembered for, apparently. Marco Polo released the complete cycle of symphonies with the Pecs Symphony Orchestra under Nicolas Pasquet in the '90s. They are being re-released by Naxos. Symphony No. 2 (Naxos 8.573644) has recently come out and I have been listening.

The Second is a monumentally dark, brooding symphony Lajtha wrote in 1938. It is a full-blown work, played with spirit by the Pecs Orchestra. I find myself increasingly drawn toward its modernist, Hungarian musical ethos.

Also included is the "Variations, Op. 44" (1948), the second of three works originally composed for Hillering's film version of Elliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It is notable for its long, sprawling symphonic thematics.

Is this a good introduction to Lajtha? No doubt the complete symphonic cycle is that. There is a singularity of the music on this volume and so it serves to wet one's whistle, nicely, and sets one up with expectations for the later works. And so it is worthwhile.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Discoveries

It is hard to imagine a 20th century English classical scene without Vaughan Williams. He gave us a music of beauty and power that was a huge part of what made the English rebirth possible. Symphonies, operas, tone poems, his output remains a joy to those who have delved into the music wholeheartedly.

And with the advent of the label Albion, an offshoot of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, we get to hear music that for whatever reason did not enjoy wide distribution until now. Discoveries (Albion 028) is one of the latest and best of their releases. We have the chance to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra and soloists in a program of tone poems, songs and film music that until now have been all-but forgotten, yet turn out to be vintage Vaughan Williams.

The "Three Nocturnes for Baritone and Orchestra" is an early work dating from 1908, when Ralph was studying with Ravel. One of the three movements was orchestrated; the other two have been orchestrated by Anthony Payne. The setting of Walt Whitman's poetry is something Vaughan Williams did a number of times in his lifetime. Here is a first go with a impressionism and harmonic palette similar to his "Riders to the Sea," among others. It is a hauntingly memorable work. The middle movement was long missing. This is the first recording of all three movements. Baritone Roderick Williams does a great job here.

"A Road All Paved with Stars - A Symphonic Rhapsody from the Opera The Poisoned Kiss"  (1936) is an arrangement of some of the high musical points in the opera by Adrian Williams. It is very lyrical and impassioned, nicely capturing the Vaughan Williams of that time.

"Stricken Peninsula - An Italian Rhapsody for Orchestra" was originally a film score for a short army propaganda movie about Italian reconstruction at the end of WWII. The score was lost but Philip Lane has transcribed it and rearranged it into a suite. It makes for worthwhile hearing, though perhaps not entirely earth shattering. Still, it is something worth hearing.

"Four Last Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra" were written to the poetry of his wife Ursula, Only one was performed during Ralph's lifetime. They were originally conceived for voice and piano. In Anthony Payne's orchestration they become a thing of mysterious contemplation. Jennifer Johnston sings them with great artistry.

This is music any lover of Vaughan Williams will welcome and appreciate. It is seminal collection of worthwhile obscurities that I recommend without reservation. Thank you, Albion!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Steve Reich, Duets, Kristjan Jarvi, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir

To celebrate Steve Reich's 80th birthday year there have been a number of important releases. I covered the ECM set a while back and today we consider another, Kristjan Jarvi and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir in a 2-CD set simply titled Duet (Sony Classics 88985366362). Whereas the ECM set covered the breakthrough classics in a reissue of the original versions, Duet presents some later gems for orchestra and orchestra and chorus in brand new versions.

Most important are the world premiere orchestral versions of "Daniel (Variations)" and "You Are (Variations)," two stunning works that manage to take further the interlocking pulsations of "Music for 18 Musicans," the choral polyphonic extensions of "Tehillim" and the string writing of "Four Sections."

An excellent version of the latter is included in the set, along with the short but captivating "Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra." As a kind of bonus, Steve and Kristjan give us a rousing version of the earlier "Clapping Music."

This set does for Reich's later orchestral period what the ECM set does for the breakthrough middle period, only Jarvi's versions of the works are newly minted. They are as near definitive in their own way as those ECM versions were for the older music.

This set evokes a world where Reich's post-modern rhythmic lyricism is a mature entity of supreme originality and extraordinary power. It is OUR world, a testament to the seminal importance of Reich's compositional mastery.

Unconditionally recommended! Happy 80th, Maestro Reich!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rodrigo, Serranilla, Songs with Guitar Accompaniment, Jose Ferrero, Marco Socias

Any appreciator of Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) and the Spanish folk-classical nexus will doubtless find the volume on tap today fascinating and rewarding. Serranilla, Songs with Guitar Accompaniment (Naxos 8.573548) gives us some 24 songs, sung very well by the late Jose Ferrero (1972-2016) with very appropriate guitar work by Marco Socias. The latter arranged-transcribed the guitar part (from piano versions) for some 17 of them. The rest are as Rodrigo scored them. In this set of world premiere recordings we get the melodic brilliance of Rodrigo in a Spanish folk mode and his Spanish-classical style in seven settings from "Con Antonio Machado."

These deserve a wider hearing and in the guitar accompanied versions we have especially fine vintage Rodrigo, some 60 year's worth. Everyone will recognize and appreciate his "Aranquez, ma pensee," a song setting of the principal theme from "Concierto de Aranquez." But the rest have the power to enchant as well.

The guitar and tenor combination seems just right for Rodrigo's intimate approach and the Ferrero-Socias handling of it all is very idiomatic and beautiful to experience.

A volume to savor! Well worth hearing many times.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Peter Scott Lewis, The Four Cycles

American composer Peter Scott Lewis (b. 1953) is a masterful creator of song cycles, as we readily hear in his recent offering The Four Cycles (Naxos 8.559815), which includes his complete vocal music to date. He is both modern and expressive at the same time, capable of writing in a harmonically ultra-advanced, edgy tonality or at times staying closer to a key center, his piano parts sometimes complicated, moving especially in the case of "Where the Heart is Pure (Duo Version)" (1993/2013) where Christine Abraham's  mezzo-soprano has a massive impact that the piano part (Keisuki Nakagoshi) makes tangible and modern-dramatic.

"The Changing Light" (2013) and "Five Love Motets" (2014) are scored for The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet and, for the first of these cycles,  piano (Stephen Gosling). They are beautifully conceived and performed, with a four-part counterpart-homophony that stands out as constituting some of the most accomplished chamber vocal music of our times. There is a sure hand at work and results that tintinnabulate in the ear with irresistible heft and charm.

The final "Three Songs from he Ish River" (1976-78) substitutes classical guitar (Colin McAllister) for the usual piano, and thrives on soprano Susan Narucki's delightful nuance.

This is "pure" vocal music in an international modern style. There are no obvious vernacular touches but instead a play on consonance and dissonance, almost hearkening back to the Viennese School but ultimately original and captivating in its own right.

It's a surprise and will be a joy for all attracted to the modern-day extensions of the lieder.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nicolay Medtner, Complete Piano Sonatas 2, Paul Stewart

Russian composer Nicolay Medtner (1880-1951), so the liner notes to his Complete Piano Sonatas 2 (Grand Piano 618) tell us, is more important, much more so than his reception in the West has recognized. Indeed, so the notes say, the "14 piano sonatas are considered among the most significant achievement[s] in this genre by any composer since Beethoven." Perhaps partly because the second volume contains only three sonatas, and mostly earlier ones, my ears have not quite confirmed this level of excellence as of yet.

The "Sonata-Idyll in G Major, Op. 56" (1935-37) is most striking, for sure, a kind of link between Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev or Shostakovich. And the final movement of "Sonata-Szazka in C Minor, Op. 25" (1910-11) is rather profound. The rest of that sonata and the "Sonata-Triad, Op. 11" (1904-08) strike me as very inventive, but rather what one might expect of a late romantic Russian composer of genuine talent, not quite at the level of a Beethoven.

These sorts of comparisons by rank may not be entirely necessary in the end. We listen and get what we will out of any work. If the volume 2 of complete Medtner sonatas in the end does not bear comparison to Beethoven to my mind, it does tell me that he belongs in the highest ranks of 20th century Russian composers for the piano. The music is highly lyrical, not at all modernistic in the widest sense, but very idiomatically pianistic and delightful to hear.

Paul Stewart has a poetic sensibility that seems perfect for these works. His technique, though considerable, is not worn on his sleeve but instead directed toward the most musical of readings. I recommend this volume to you and look forward to new installments. Medtner is Medtner and how ever that stacks up, this is very worthwhile piano music.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Leonard Lehrman, Joel Mandelbaum, Harmonize Your Spirit with My Calm

Today's album portrays the symbiosis between two American composers of Russian-Jewish descent. Harmonize Your Spirit with My Calm (Ravello 7951) is actually a line from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's poem but aptly alludes to the 40 year friendship between composers Leonard Lehrman and Joel Mandelbaum.

On this album we have a creative  commingling of the two: Lehrman plays on Mandelbaum's "Prelude" for solo piano, Mandelbaum conducts Lehrman's "Bloody Kansas," Lehrman plays piano on the Mandelbaum's song "Love is Not All." Plus Helene Williams, Lehrman's wife, sings songs by each of them.

Both have a distinct modern style, mostly tonal, expressive, filled with the rootedness of their backgrounds yet cosmopolitan-international too at times. Perhaps Lehrman is the spirit (modernist) and Mandelbaum is the calm (neoclassicist) but it is a fully complex dialectic going on here.

We are treated to  Mandelbaum's early (1950) solo piano "Prelude," his orchestral works "Chaconne" (1977) and "In Sainte-Chapelle" (2002), the latter based on a watercolor impression of  Revelation images from the windows of that church (the painting forms the art for the cover of this album) by his wife Ellen. We then hear Mandelbaum's briskly neo-classical "String Quartet No. 2" (1962-78) and the 1950 song "Love is Not All."

Lehrman chimes in with the cycle of "8 Russian Songs" (1970-2015) for soprano or bass-baritone and orchestra, a masterful offering, followed by the miniature "Bloody Kansas" (1976) for orchestra, and finally "An Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Love Song Cycle" (1994) for soprano and piano.

So much music, well played and sung, comparing and contrasting two interrelated styles while forming a richly satisfying program in total. This is substantial contemporary fare.