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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Piano a Deux, France Revisited, Music by Onslow, Debussy, Poulenc

What makes French music "French"? Is there something in common between the music of Rameau, say, and that of Messiaen? It is almost a ridiculous question since there is so much music that has been created by French composers over the years that it is too much to expect it all to conform to some hypothetical model. Yet one thing one might make note of is the the lyricism of much of the music--a lyricism that is never quite Romantic in some Germanic way, even with someone like Berlioz? Yes, I generally think that.

This morning for my blog discussion I have a program of French works by the Piano a Deux group, namely Robert and Linda Ang Stoodley, entitled France Revisited (Divine Art 25132). The works featured are not especially standard fare, all being music for four hands at one piano with the exception of one piece, which is for two-handed piano solo.

The inclusion of two works by George Onslow (1784-1853) is as unexpected as it is rewarding. He wrote an extraordinary amount of chamber music including 36 String Quartets and 34 String Quintets! The "Sonata for Piano Four-hands, No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 7" is masterful and strong, and the "Six Pieces Pour Piano (solo)" is a charming set of miniatures that compels and beguiles.  These are revelatory, showing us a mature Onslow that has a sprawling lyricism, almost Schubertian in scope.

Claude Debussy's "Petite Suite" and Francois Poulenc's "Chansons de l'Amour et de la Guerre," the latter as arranged for piano four-hands by Linda Ang Stoodle, are beautiful works very well played here.

Piano a Deux have a remarkable fluidity and togetherness which make them a delight to hear. The Onslow works are a real find; the Poulenc and Debussy as well played as any versions I have heard. All told France Revisited  gives us a unexpected joy as we hear! Recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Society for New Music, Music Here & Now

Of New Music there is no end. This is how of course it should be in a healthy music world. Today we have the chance to consider a volume of  seven new works by seven composers that many of us know little about.  It is brought to us by the Society for New Music. The two-CD set is aptly titled Music Here & Now (Innova 970). By anthologizing this series of World Premier Recordings the Society gives us a feeling for some of what is new in New Music spheres. As we sometimes see now, there are many composers out there working within tonalities. It is a given in Pomo avenues. How that works out can be tremendously varied, as the music on this anthology attests.

There is to be heard in this set jazz influences, a shade of beyond-Minimalism, Neo-Classicism, and Modern laced adventures that bring some of last century's experimentations into newly codified terrains. Rhythm in a forward moving way is another element you can hear nicely as a salient aspect of some of these works.

Performances are of a uniformly high caliber. Sufficient rehearsal time has been put into every work. The final recordings are vigorous and tender or contemplative as called for. Nothing is lacking in the performers. Smaller to larger chamber orchestra configurations are the rule.

There are internationalist elements to be heard too, without that being a central focus.

So we hear in succession Rob Deemer's "Cantos," Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon's "Jacaras," Gregory Wanamaker's "Music from a Story Within a Story," Zhou Tien's "Morning After the Deluge," Jorge Villavicencio Grossman's "Whistling Vessels," 'Doctuh' Mike Woods's "Libations," and Mark Olivieri's "Concertino: Stress Test."

Multiple hearings confirm the music as consistently well wrought and interestingly moving. Take the plunge with this one and you will doubtless  gain another perspective on what is new out there. New and excitingly so.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Susan Kander, Hermestanze

We carry on in life day in and day out. New people come into our center focus. Others leave. Unfamiliar composers can surprise us. Susan Kander is the latest of the latter. She is from the USA. Seemingly thriving. MSR sent me a CD of three World Premier Recordings of her music. Hermestanze (MSR 1578) is the title, named after the longest and perhaps most involved work of the three. A common thread throughout is the violin (and viola) work of Jacob Ashworth who sounds beautiful here. Joining him are pianist Lee Dionne and Jessica Petrus, soprano. All are dedicated to drawing out the rich subtleties of Kander's music, which is extremely well put-together and inspired, in a sort of Modern Neo-Classical vein.

There is depth and poise to the music. The half-hour opus "Hermestanze" (2013) for violin and piano forms the most remarkable of the three works, filled with intricate beauty. There is no direct similarity but one nonetheless recalls Stravinsky and Hindemith. There is a definite twist in form however that sets this work apart. In the tradition of earlier composers such as Schumann, the music is conceived of as a song cycle, in this case for violin and piano. 13 discrete yet interrelated song-like movements grace our ears, with a reprise of "Hermes, Messenger of the Gods" at the conclusion. This is no Neo-Romanticism in spite of the roots of the form. It is decidedly Modern and Classically balanced in the best ways. Jacob Ashworth commissioned the work and gives it definitive form. Lee Dionne makes an ideal partner for the performance. It is superb music, superbly played.

The "Solo Sonata" (2002) (with Ashworth on violin in the outer movements, viola in the middle) has the seriousness of purpose of similar works by Bartok, Reger and Hindemith. The imaginative and idiomatic use of violinistic articulations (such as double stops and harmonics) and a combination of momentum and moodiness mark Kander out as a worthy successor to the 20th century masters of such configurations.

"A Garden's Time Piece" (2011) is based on the poetry of Leslie Lasky. It has an introspective, contemplative air about it and a touchingly sparse demeanor thanks to Kanders well conceived parts. Ashworth's violin is the sole accompaniment to Jessica Petrus and her movingly sweet soprano voice. The nicely articulated performance and the considerable charm of the music win the day if you take the time to listen closely.

Susan Kander has genuine torque as a fully accomplished voice on the Modern scene. Get this one if a new wrinkle on Neo-Classicist New Music appeals. If you do not know whether that is so for you or not listen carefully and you may well be convinced that Kander is worth hearing and a welcome original exponent today.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Matteo Liberatore, Solos

For where the electric and acoustic guitar is today in New Music-Improv worlds, you can give yourself a real leg up on things by listening to the music of Matteo Liberatore, in a recent album simply entitled Solos (Innova 985). Elliot Sharp, the preset-day artist and curatorial champion of advanced guitar realms, did the remixing and mastering, and his involvement is telling, since his selfless and insightful sponsorship has been central of late in a series of guitar showcases for the very new realms on Clean Feed, I've Never Meta Guitar. (See my Gapplegate Guitar Blog for review articles. The link to that site is located in the column to the right.)

Liberatore makes very varied and imaginative use of tunings, preparations, and both conventional and unusual sounding techniques for the twelve solo interludes on this CD. Hammering on the strings with objects, bowing, cycles of picking arpeggiation, scraping, rubbing,  striking and plucking at once, glissandi, open strings along with stops, harmonics, etc.

Each composition is rather improvisatory in that it realizes a particular way to sound the guitar in a way that has immediacy. Some seem overtly, compositionally structural; others are free-flowing sound color realizations. All have in their own way a striking sonance, a special sound universe, all seem like soundtracks to some heightened state of being. Not all interludes are completely tabula rasa in terms of extended techniques. It all however holds together as a suite of musically vibrant works.

Beyond and aside from the rather ingenious ways the guitar is rethought with the various extended techniques of which Matteo makes very creative use, the music fascinates on its own. Bravo!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Miya Masaoka, Triangle of Resistance

There is a great deal more New Music coming out of different shades of stylistic distinctness now than there might have been in, say, 1972. For composer Miya Masaoka, there is a High Modern stance that nestles welcomingly in a post serialist, post-pointillist, post-bleep-bloop manner of proceeding; that is on the two works contained on the recent album Triangle of Resistance (Innova 945).

The title work is the more ambitious and memorable of the two. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of seven instrumentalists including koto (played by the composer), plus string quartet, percussion and synthesizer. It was written in remembrance and protest against the internment of Japanese-Americans in the US during WWII. "The Long Road," "The Clattering of Life," and "Survival" are the respectve titles of the three movements. The music portrays the  uprootedness, suffering and upheaval of sudden and tragic displacement as it must have felt to the victims. The music has a muted anguish and an outspoken expressiveness to it consistent with the subject matter.

The second work, "Four Moons of Pluto" is written for solo contrabass. The music involves the shifting vortex of a number of heightened resonance positions via harmonic partials and enhancements gained by detuning strings. The work seeks an analogy between the movement of planetary bodies and the movement of small number ratioed intervals.

All in all we have two provocative and relatively stunning aural explorations that most New Music appreciators will likely find interesting and worthwhile. Listen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Altius Quartet, Shostakovich, String Quartets 7, 8 & 9

Shostakovich during his eventful life wrote 15 String Quartets. They have long been celebrated as some of the handful of 20th century masterpieces of the idiom for the emotional depth of the music, the exceptional color of the strings and the serious thematic dramatics of the music from first to last. It is music to live with and grow into for an entire lifetime. The serious breadth of the music gives us something to ponder and evolve towards for an eternity. How much can any body of music offer this in a sustained way? The less of it than the more, in the end. So we should treasure what we have so exceptionally in the Shostakovich Quartets.

And as if to forward that the Altius Quartet gives us a new recording of the middle String Quartets 7, 8 & 9 (Navona 6125). There is great thrust in their hearty brio, quiet passages of sensitive probing, affirmations of the complexities and trials of human existence.

The middle quartets are a bellwether in the unfolding excellence of Shostakovich's non-compromising, severe sublimity.The middle quartets are a product of post-WWII trauma and upheaval. It was not a good time to be a Soviet composer. Shostakovich reacted to the troubled times with a challenging set of works exactly the opposite of what was expected of him by State apparachiks.We are so fortunate that he courageously prevailed under such dire circumstances. Would any of our artists today been so courageous to produce works like this under all-too-serious government opposition? Maybe not. Perhaps today such an artist would simply be locked away in an ivory tower and disposed of with a passive-aggressive indifference? That is another situation and one might ask whether that kind of "freedom" is so much better? No answer from me. History will no doubt tell the story better than we can. Too much is at stake now. And we cannot always see what developments are moving us where.

In the end it is these works we remember as enormously significant beacons of  Modern 20th-Century Music.

The Altius Quartet gives us ravishing performances of the three quartets. There is brisk energy and unsentimental, slightly reticent acuity that make these performances stand out.

Are these the best ever renditions of 7. 8 & 9? I would not go so far as to say that. Nonetheless they are vital readings and I am glad to have the CD as an addition to my Shostakovich Quartet standard recordings. A newcomer to these essential works would be well-served too. Highly recommended. The Altius Quartet is a phenomenon!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, The Firebird Suite, David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

There may be no more important work in the rise of Modernism than The Rite of Spring. There perhaps is no more significant pre-Modern precursor than The  Firebird. Both established Stravinsky as one of the titans of our times. And music was never quite the same afterwords. Here 2018 now, more than a century later, and the music sounds as beautifully important as ever. David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in the wake of their rather seminal recording of the Pathetique Symphony (see index for that review) come to us with another worthy offering, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and The Firebird Suite.(Recursive Classics 2058479).

As I sit here and write this post outside my windows are the makings of a soon-to-be-active springtime. Listening to The Rite of Spring again after so much personal and historical water under the bridge makes me wonder to myself. A work, this work brought reactions of horror and shock on the now infamous premiere performance. Audiences rioted. Hear the music today it is difficult to reimagine what the fuss was all about. That is of course much to do with how the music effected the Modern music that came after. Rhythmic drive, some dynamic dissonances, and Stravinsky's beautiful handling of the orchestra as no longer a matter of strings and extras, of course.

Does that truly explain the shock some felt on hearing the music for the first time? No. It is hard to reconstruct. By the time I was a kid Stravinsky was just there, part of what you heard. My very first classical record had on it The Firebird Suite. It seemed like it was made for a kid like me. In 6th grade we watched a slide show depicting the Firebird mytho-poetic sequence while the music played. No, they did not bring in the Rite at that point. And if they did not, it was because of the subject matter more than the musical content I would think. The Art Major Class in high school was it seemed always to be playing the Rite on the portable record player while kids created things. Nobody was shocked. Hardly.

So think of the subject matter.  "Ritual of Abduction," "Mystic Circle of the Young Girls," "Sacrificial Dance." This was a musical primitivism on the surface of things, just as Picasso introduced African Mask imagery into his art around the same time. People were reacting especially to this pre-Christian "savagery" when they rioted, maybe. Not to the music. Suppose Stravinsky had named it "The Hurricane?" That audience might all have cheered at the end.

Needless to say such a "primitive" subject matter hardly phases us today. It poses no threat. No more than Picasso's introduction of exotically "primitive" imagery into his paintings in the years just preceding the premier. It was in the wind there in Paris. It marked a momentus cultural change, of course. Yet it did not mean that Europe had truly "gone native." It was just an incorporation of non-Western, proto-archaic  aspects into the Modern assumption of what was acceptable as subject matter and content.

The music seems so familiar now that it could be profitably heard by virtually anyone of some musical understanding. Years and years of strident horror film soundtracks alone have accustomed us to expanded possibilities.

Now the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony and David Bernard's reading of Rite and Firebird reflects our acceptance and familiarity with these icons. There is sensuality, there is great power, there is a dynamic smoothness, a sure handedness of execution and easy comprehensions of the full breadth of the scores. The chamber sized orchestra does not overtax, the strings are equals with the winds and brass, all seems right and measured yet forcefully lyric.The percussion is not shy and we get the full weight of the music in a nicely balanced neither romanticized or self-consciously "savage" way.

The versions are close to ideal. The performance is near perfect for the newcomer to "Modern" music. Old hands may well find these versions worthwhile to add to their collection. I myself am glad to have them.