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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Komitas, Seven Songs, Lusine Grigoryan

The Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) has the distinction of being one of the most lyrical and folk-rooted "modern" exponents of the unforgettable character of the age-old Armenian ways of music making. Like the late Armenian-American Hovhannes at times, he translates the songful traditional idiom into classical terms while eschewing sentimentalizing or romanticizing strains.

We hear the unsullied purity of pianistic means that Komitas embodies so well on Lusine Grigoryan's recorded solo debut Seven Songs (ECM New Series 2514), which follows on the heels of Grigoryan and the Gurdjieff Ensemble's folk instrument Komitas renditions (ECM New Series 2451) that I happily covered when it came out.

The Komitas we hear on the present collection has a directness yet a well conceived pianism that makes full use of the inventively long melodic paths that wind their way through the music in minor diatonic freshness that in a very Armenian way contrasts with the Mid-Eastern and Eastern European raised seventh, harmonic vertically gestural minor modes we are used to hearing.

Five compositional groupings grace the program on the CD. It shows a Komitas firmly expository of Armenian essence, mostly simple but never facile, demanding a poetic interpretation Ms. Grigoryan provides with consistency and real eloquence. Thus we are treated to ideal renditions of the title collection "Seven Songs" plus "Maho Shoror," "Seven Dances," "Pieces for Children" and "Toghik."

The inspiration and melodic unfolding never flag. Lusine handles it all with a sparkling luminescence.

For all folk-classical minor mode aficionados, all lovers of things Armenian, all who love Komitas this is essential fare. Truly lovely!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

J. S. Bach, Suiten fur Violoncello, Thomas Demenga

There has been a flurry of activity, a spate of recordings of Bach's justly celebrated Suiten fur Violoncello. It was considered a masterpiece for centuries, yet unlike say the "Brandenburg Concertos" was not as widely appreciated by the general public as it seems to be now. But then there weren't so many versions available in the recorded medium as there are today.

Part of this has to do with a contemporary musical stance that appreciates a bare, unadulterated solo intimacy that contrasts with the past emphasis on making an unholy din in a world of giganticism, though of course that possibility is not so much in eclipse as it is now more emphatically one way of expression among many. Silvestrov's contemporary solo cello music is a great example of the micro-ensemble currency that thrives today. See yesterday's review of that music on this blog. Of course solo piano music has been ever in demand among classical listeners since its advent, but the solo string instrument seems ever more an object of heightened interest and acceptance.

The very latest recording of Bach's Suites, beautifully performed by cellist Thomas Demenga (ECM New Series 2 CD: 2530/31), realizes the full scope of the multiple movement music in ways that help raise the bar for flowing, singingly lyrical yet briskly robust versions. The full artistry of the cello solo has never been quite so apparent as here. This performance is not merely a kind of lab for aspiring cellists as it is a totally realized, deeply living and breathing art form for anybody and everybody who wishes to be uplifted by the master composers of our heritage. I have reviewed on these pages one or two other recordings of the Suites that reach similar heights, but all in all this current set has a consistency that is hard to match.

Demenga previously recorded the Suites for the ECM New Series between 1986 and 2002, interspersed with contemporary works for cello. This second look at the music is served as it were full strength and gives Demenga the chance to delve ever deeper into the full possibilities of expression the Suites offer to a master interpreter.

He very much rises to the occasion with a sort of inner insight into the music that is most rare. Yes, he is technically flawless at all times, yet this is no mere platform for cello artistry. It uncovers the kind of flowing inevitability of each movement with a conviction and an inner comprehension that sets these performances apart from the merely engaged performances we might hear today.

The phrasings come alive with just the right amount of rubato to heighten the gestural impact, but never to lose sight of the connectivity of Bach's musical language. Those movements that demand concentrated forward momentum both sing and drive ahead with exciting energy and poise. Those that are more contemplative linger with thoughtful emphases.

Demenga's  deeply rich, beautifully full woody tone comes across from the first bars of the music to the very end. Manfred Eicher captures it wonderfully well, so that the whole affirms a melding of cello timbral depth and musical affirmation.

If you can only have one version of Bach's perennial music, this could well be it. It would be my choice right now. Those who feel good about gathering a number of contrasting versions in the personal stacks might well choose this one too, as a synthetic marvel.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Valentin Silvestrov, Hieroglyphen der Nacht, Anja Lechner, Agnes Vesterman

Modern new music works for one or two cellists. . . if you imagine in your head what that might sound like, you may be surprised when you hear Valentin Silvestrov's Hieroglyphics der Nacht (ECM New Series 2389). It is a series of six works, four for cello and in one case simultaneously sounded tamtams featuring Anja Lechner, and two for cello duo with the addition of Agnes Vesterman. The release happily coincides with Silvestrov's recent 80th birthday. He sounds much younger than that, ever youthful!

Silvestrov is a composer most acutely aware of the sonic possibilities that are limited only by his fertile imagination, so that this music is expansive and deeply resonant, ambient yet focused on the notes themselves as well as harmonics and other careful interweavings of extended and more standard techniques. He may see himself as a kind of "coda" to music history. Yet we who listen feel the march of time, a moving forward in the music that may bring with it some of the luggage of the past, yet the trip is not at all backwards. It is moving ahead.

Silvestrov began his composing career as an avowed high modernist in Soviet Russia (despite general governmental hostility to such things), then came to realize that "the most important lesson of the avant-garde was to be free of all preconceived ideas--including those of the avant-garde." And so in time his music evolved into what he calls his "metaphorical style," or "meta-music." Sometimes that involves a conversation of the present with the past.

Yet in these works for single and duo cello there are concentric gestural focal points that continually move forward with a poetic deliberation. Lechner and then Lechner and Vesterman bring determined clarity and perfect execution to the atmospherics that are understandably greatly heightened by Manfred Eicher's sympathetically complementary sound staging. Lechner notes that the solo pieces especially play with the idea of two alternate musical personas that engage one against the other like shadow and light.  Throughout this program the one out of the two feeling can show its forward momentum to the deep listener in time. It did for me. So I think for you, also.

The duo works are written as if for one extended cello, or cello "four hands," where the interlocking parts sound together closely as one expanded voice in space. "2.VI.1810. . . zurn Geburtstag R. A. Schumann" evokes a would-be lockstep, harmonically anchored allusion to the music of Schumann's making but as if heard across the vast distance of time, a ghostly vision, a rubato that transmits as if a short wave radio signal emanating from far away, a there-not-there mist of sound more than a real-time presence. This is musical poetics of a high order.

One could go on at greater length about the impact of each work. The liner notes to the album wax on about such things perhaps far better than my distanced connection to this remarkable music can do. I have perhaps the disadvantage of dis-local participation with such music, yet my distance I do believe helps me evaluate how such music sounds to the well-tempered listener not conjoined in the everyday discourse of the emanation points. So when I feel the magic inherent in this music and its considerably focused and inspired performance, it is I hope what you may well also feel as part of the relational yet distanced ears of the world.

So for all you potential listeners out there, whether you love the cello and its many sound worlds as I do, or you are neutral and primarily seeking out music that is worthwhile, Silvestrov and his extraordinarily accomplished cello playing concretizers give you a world of true magic on this one. After a short time you start forgetting how much has gone into making this recording so compelling and instead enter another universe of human sound and the associative thoughts those sounds give rise to. It is as of you have become immersed in the middle of a super musical particle collider where YOU become happily penetrated with sublime aurality. Really.

Stunning music in any case. Adopt these works into your musical family, by all means. Strongly recommended.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Longleash, Passage, Modern Trio Music by Trapani, Iannotta, Watanabe, Magdaleno, Filidei

The trio Longleash is a formidable one. They step forward dramatically with Passage (New Focus Recordings 180), a program of very modernistic piano trio works by five composers, all younger than I am. All were born between 1973 and 1984, so they are relatively young. The music has a pronounced high modern panache, and a special attention to "register, tone production, texture" as the liners put it, in other words sound color and extended techniques when appropriate. The music is thoroughly episodic with irregular and punctuated entrances and exits in the idiom of the avant guard chamber outlook. It is music of extended tonality and expanded gravitation trajectory, not, in other words, tonal in any conventional sense, but not necessarily purely atonal, either, for the most part.

The trio instrumentalists are put through their paces and handle the complexities with assurance and exceptional musicianship, so that the core of the music comes through with a speech-like naturalness, with phrasings that work together for a cohesive horizontal and vertical logic that is clear and directionally artful.

Longleash is named after the CIA Cold War program known as Operation Long Leash, which was dedicated to disseminating US avant garde works throughout Europe. Of course the name illustrates the ambiguity of the functional presence of the avant movement in modern society. The trio is comprised of Pala Garcia on violin, John Popham on cello and Renate Rohlfing on piano. They according to the liners are "inspired by music with an unusual sonic beauty, an inventive streak, and a truthful cultural voice."

That is surely true of the works on this album and Longleash rises to the occasion with superbly musical interpretations. None of the composers are exactly household names, but each provides music that together forms a cohesive whole as to general approach while each showing true inventive individuality.

So there is real substance and serious aural remapping of the trio terrain with the program at hand. It begins with Christopher Trapani's "Passing Through, Staying Put," and from there we hear Clara Iannotta's "Il colore dell'ombra," Yukiko Watanabe's "ver_flies_sen," Juan de Dios Magdaleno's "Strange Attractors," and finally Francesco Filidei's "Corde Vuote." We may seemingly be a great distance from Haydn's Piano Trios and indeed we are. Yet the idea of such a configuration as a viable constant remains.

The color capabilities of each instrument as well as the ensemble as a whole is primary to this lively and very musically progressive collection of trio works. Longleash brings us exemplary performances one could hardly imagine being bettered and in the process allows us to hear just how exciting and ear-opening modern chamber music can be.

Passage is indeed an avenue, a path, an opening into the latest New Music for Piano Trio and though perhaps not destined for mass consumption, even if it should be, is a real triumph for both Longleash and the composers involved. I recommend it highly.

. .

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Danish String Quartet, Last Leaf

Today, a leisurely walk down a different sort of folksy rooted path that gives us much to experience. There are brambles and thickets going past our forward movement but the path is well marked and goes its distance in a straightforward way. I allude to the CD at hand this morning, the Danish String Quartet and their album Last Leaf (ECM New Series 2550).

This is a extraordinarily well knit and adventuresome ensemble. For this new album they devote their attention to Nordic folk forms, specially created arrangements of elaborate folk fiddling and songful artfulnesses, some going back countless eons, whether Christmas tunes or dance fare. There is a unity of mood and purpose in the entire program overall, one that shows the Quartet to have notable virtuoso abilities and a beautiful tone blend born of the sensitive adjustment of instrumentalist to instrumentalist. Added to the string mix is a bit of doubling, on harmonium, contrabass, piano, glockenspiel to add color as appropriate. That and the extended existence of the Quartet as a unit gives us a tightly hewed consonance that is singularly beautiful.

So "The Last Leaf" refers to the very oldest secular song-melody that still exists in the Nordic folk stratum of possibilities. "Dromte mig en drom (I had a Dream)" turned up on the very last leaf of the Codex Runicus parchment dating back to circa 1300. That and a 1732 Danish Christmas hymn "Now Found is the Fairest of Roses" are foundational musical parts of this collection-re-creation.

And as you listen to the many disparate folk numbers a unified aesthetic unity comes out of it all. It is an album that reveals itself increasingly on further listens, like Russian eggs nested in eggs. In this way the Danish String Quartet creates a program that respectfully explores folk terrain as it transforms it into quartet music, in a re-creative act that takes it all further beyond itself without losing the fresh charm of its reiterative venerability, something new emerging from a misty, not really hoary past.

In the best of some aspects of the ECM stance, it brings folk forms to new life as something contemporary and ambiently luscious, verdant, like an unspoiled rural landscape that survives and changes over a long period of time while retaining its original striking quality. Enthusiastic kudos to the Danish String Quartet and Manfred Eicher for bringing to us this beautiful music.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Eternal Monteverdi, Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1650, La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata, Roland Wilson

If you know the music of  Claudio Monteverdi, you know. If you do not, now is the time with the new recording of  "Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1650," otherwise appropriately dubbed Eternal Monteverdi (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88985375132), as performed by La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata, all under the direction of Roland Wilson.

This Vespers contrasts with the more famous 1610 work by Monteverdi, which I have covered on these pages (type Monteverdi in the search box above for that). The work in consideration today has its own merits. Five of the 14 movements were written by others, namely Rigatti, Neri and Guadi.

Nonetheless the music has genuine charm. And it is not inferior so much as it is not quite as illustrious as the 1610 Vespers. The Sixteen's recording of that is slightly more essential than this rendition of the 1650. Yet Roland Wilson's performances of the 1610 with La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata has all the period authenticity one might ask for.

Any Monteverdi enthusiast will find this recording very much to their liking I think. Anyone coming to this period and/or composer for the first time will get something fully representative and foundational for future explorations. Go ahead!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ernest Toch, Solo Piano Pieces, Anna Magdalena Kokits

If you were only to say one thing about Austrian composer Ernest Toch (1887-1964), it might be "undersung." He is not quite completely "unsung," as there have been some very few recordings available in the States, including a long out-of-print LP of a song cycle on MGM in the fifties, but he has been tragically underappreciated nonetheless.

A very happy exception is the recent release of Anna Magdalena Kokits' recording of some of his Solo Piano Pieces (Capriccio 5293). These are a choice selection of works from the interwar years (1923-1931), when he changed his essentially romantic approach to a very contemporary one, mostly post-tonal or marginally tonal, filled with an energetic brilliance and sounding not quite like any other. His father was Jewish and the Fascism of the war years undoubtedly played a part in what has ended up as relative obscurity for him. I do not know the full details. Wikipedia tells of his exile to the United States, his involvement in Hollywood film scoring, teaching, a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony and a return to the romantic style. None of this should detain us for now. The music on the current album speaks eloquently without need for further biographical details.

From the opening bars of the first work, "Burlesques" (1923), we know we are in the presence of a special sensibility. Chromatic and bitter-sweet, it is a distinctive and very pianistic world we enter, neither quite Hindemithian nor beholden to the Second Viennese School. The atonality in this period of Toch is a relative one, since one might ultimately tie down what one hears to a key center. And some of the music is unabashedly tonal. There is a great deal more to it though than some close or distant holding to a key or a tonal gravitation.

And that comes out in the phrasing and flow of the works, brought out so well in Ms. Kokits' performances. They are extraordinarily artful, inspired and original.

The seven compositional forays represented on the album range from the relatively simple "Ten Etudes for Beginners" (1931) to the ambitious "Piano Sonata" (1928). The numerous collations of miniatures in the set show us an incisive side, an inventive wealth. Some might be viewed illuminatingly as a sort of Austrian Satie in playful creative mood, others decidedly have some more Austrian elements, in a kind of modern position on the piano tradition going back to the classical masters yet only as if ghosted and transformed. The longer form works expand the conversational musical syntax appropriately.

With the first listen and subsequent ones, the impression of an original musical mind at work remains constant. This particular grouping of Ernest Toch stands out as defining a 20th century figure much more than an "also ran." The album beguiles and intrigues without fail. Please consider this one seriously. Any student of the flowering of last century in its modern efflorescence will hear another fine voice in the din of competing possibilities. Do listen.