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Monday, February 27, 2017

George Lewis, The Will to Adorn, International Contemporary Ensemble

Of all the avant jazz artists who have turned to new music composition, trombonist George Lewis is among the most rewarding and successful. He started as a key member of Chicago's black collective AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and then saw greater exposure as the trombonist in Anthony Braxton's breakout small group. He was an important component of many avant jazz ensembles that followed, including his own groups, ended up a professor at Columbia University and is now Vice-Chairman of the music department, where his interest in electronics and experimental new music composition as well as his continued involvement with avant improvisation have found an institutional outlet and ever-increasing recognition.

Some of his vibrant new music compositions are given near ideal performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble on a new CD entitled The Will to Adorn (Tundra New Focus Recordings 005).

This is beautifully contrapuntal new music that preserves the pointillist and timbral liveliness of the best avant jazz ensembles and transposes it all into written works that demand precision and commitment to an expression at once Afro-American as well as international.

"The Will to Adorn" (2011) leads off the set with a putting into musical terms what Zora Neale Hurston named as a primary characteristic of Afro-American expression in a 1934 essay. Dr. Lewis achieves in beautiful ensemble intercomplexities what Hurston described as a "decoration of a decoration"--in nearly infinite spilling over of counterlines on counterlines. ICE brings it all to us in exciting ways.

From there we experience three more chamber works that vary the musical utterances and instrument combinations but stay within a super-variational context. And so we hear and appreciate "Shadowgraph, 5" (1977), "Artificial Life 2007" (2007), and "Born Obbligato" (2013), exciting ventures into the new.

To top off the program George Lewis's unaccompanied trombone has a solo highlight on composer T. J. Anderson's "In Memoriam Albert Lee Murray" (2013), the latter a writer of insight into Afro-Jazz topics. The jazz tradition is encapsulated and celebrated in this short work, which reminds us of course what an excellent artist Lewis is in the instrumental realms.

And so we come to the end of a beautifully composed and executed volume, giving us pause and good reason to consider George Lewis as one of our leading American composers today. Any modernist follower, modern Afro-jazz fan and new music champion should find this music as I did, vital, extraordinary and a beautiful listen.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Storm - Fear

There is a very dramatic component to the later music of Finnish composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008), at least as far as the three orchestral works on the recent release Storm - Fear (Alba Super Audio CD 399) are concerned. His is a high modernist, expressionist approach that breathes with arcs of narrative power.

The two concerted works, "Concerto No. 2 for piano, strings and percussion Op. 112" (2001) and "Concerto for piano left hand only and chamber orchestra, Op. 129" (2004) nicely showcase the dedicated interpretive poeticism of pianist Henri Sigfridsson  and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra under Juha Kangas. The mutually rewarding relationship of the composer and the orchestra during his lifetime leaves us with performances that sound most definitive.

The "Song cycle to poems by Edith Sodergran for mezzo-soprano, strings and harp Op. 123" (2003) features the moving vocal performance of Monica Groop.

All three works have a somewhat dark demeanor, punctuated by glimpses of sunlight. Nordgren's sure hand and paramount mood-setting give us a strong wordless series of story lines (paralleled, of course in the song cycle with the poetry declamation) that contextualize the extended modernist palette in very personal ways.

This is not so much a music of virtuosity as that of character. All who bask in modernist tone painting will no doubt find this disk of high interest. Nordgren deserves remembrance and celebration, and we get the chance to do both in this highly attractive program.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Axel Borup-Jorgensen, Organ Music, Jens E. Christensen

Those who like me revel in the cathedral organ and at the same time respond readily to high modernism in this context (for example in the organ music of Messiaen) will find the recent release of Axel Borup-Jorgensen's Organ Music (Our Recordings 6.220617) quite appealing, a sophisticated trip into an organic cosmos both mysterious and bracing.

He was born in 1924 in Denmark, grew up in Sweden, lived a quiet but productive life as composer and teacher and left this world in 2012. Originally primarily a pianist-composer (type his name in the search box above for a review of some of that), he became increasingly attracted to the organ, happily, since the current release contains nine works that stand out for their contrasting quietude and energy, their subtle shifts and cosmic openness. This is a music of matter-of-fact suchness rather than virtuoso complexities. Part of that has to do with Axel's insurance that the works would be well performed by very competent players who were not necessarily leading technicians.

Borup-Jorgensen's attention to nuance and atmospheric presence, of silence into sound and vice-versa ensure that we do not miss extended passages of demonically difficult passagework. His is a music of the earth and sky, a spiritual reaching out to sonic worlds we do not often dwell in, an original cosmos of organicity,

The nine works on the CD include three for organ alone, one for organ duo, one for cembalo and organ,  two for organ and percussionist, one for alto and organ and one for bass and organ.

"Winter Music" for percussion and organ makes use of the cathedral space for some dramatically resonant drums against a searching organ. That one is perhaps the most dramatic but Jens E. Christensen's careful attention to detail and sympathy for the Borup-Jorgensen universe ensure that we are immersed in a sonic wash of sound that is as extended in modern realms as it is unassumung.

This is not music to overwhelm the senses or shock. It is a very personal journey into Borup-Jorgensen's exploration of sonic and textural possibilities latent in the modern cathedral organ.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, Complete String Quartets 5, Carpe Diem String Quartet

From what I have heard thus far, Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856-1915) and his String Quartets make up a body of work unsurpassed in pre-modern Russian chamber realms. Not until Shostakovich and his quartets would we have anything comparable. A while back I covered a volume of the Carpe Diem Quartet's version of the Taneyev cycle (type "Taneyev" in the search box above for that). Now I return with their Complete String Quartets 5 (Naxos 8.573671), which covers Quartet No 8 and, with the addition of James Buswell on viola, String Quintet No. 2.

This, I assume the final volume in the series, affirms both Taneyev's largely unheralded stature in the quartet literature and Carpe Diem's authoritative performances.

Quartet No. 8 is filled with marvelous contrapuntal inventions, sounding for all generalities as a sort of Russian Beethoven in the late romantic-pre-modern zone. Anyone who might appreciate previously unknown, extraordinarily crafted and spirited quartet-quintet gems will readily take to this volume 5 in particular and all five in general, from what I have heard of them.

Taneyev is but one, yet nevertheless an important one of the too little examined treasures of the Russian 20th century as a whole.

Recommended for chamber music fans and Russophiles!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Yevgeny Kutik, Words Fail, with John Novacek

Those who are actively inclined toward music have experienced pieces that somehow go beyond what words alone can express, leaving a palpable something behind that has great meaning. So-called serious music, classical or jazz especially, does this exceptionally well.

I have a relative who can only appreciate music with lyrics, songs. This essentially closes her off to the most sublime moments that music can give us.  That is sad. What such people miss! Of course (and thankfully for the rest of us) those more dedicated to musical arts know and grasp the deeper communicative levels instrumental music can convey. We are the lucky ones and I thank the heavens every day for that. We can appreciate the musical equivalent of "tweets" (when done well) or the complexities of a long musical "novel." There is so much more available to the sensitive listener and you are my audience, surely.

Violinist Yevgeny Kutik and pianist John Novacek have put together a wide-ranging program of duos which communicate in this way on the album Words Fail (Marquis 774718147721). The results play themselves inside your head with varying degrees of urgency, but all "say" something profound with notes alone.

We begin auspiciously with three of Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words" arranged for violin and piano by Friedrich Hermann. These are paradigms of song forms that use melody alone to communicate moods to the listener, and in so doing leave a distinct impression.

Next up is the Adagio from Mahler's "Symphony No. 5," a heartfelt, searchingly poetic utterance that when translated to violin and piano by Robert Wittinger seems all the more direct.

Two world premiere recordings follow: Michael Gandolfi's "Arioso Doloroso/Estatico," a very expressive mood piece for unaccompanied violin; and Timo  Andres' "Words Fail," which winds itself out as a central rhythmic motif joins a varying sequential melodic-harmonic pattern that seems perhaps melancholy or regretful but is complicated by its non-literal nature.

Tchaikovsky's own "Song without Words" (here arranged by Fritz Kriesler) has like Mendelssohn's series by that name a definite litero-evocative subtext that one senses gladly.

Following the program we next hear Prokofiev's rather rare "Five Melodies, Op.35bis." Prokofiev nearly always strikes me as a musical mind that can via instrumental utterance communicate intricate, multiple feeling complexes quite beyond verbal description. That is much the case with these five movements. Wonderful music to hear!

Further on in the modern zone is Messiaen's "Theme et variations," with his own complex rhythmic-melodic-harmonic sense, creating meaning with fully dense language that goes far beyond the verbal. Kutik comes through with an especially inspired performance.

Lisa Auerbach, a living force in composition and string playing whom we have familiarized ourselves with on an ECM recording a couple of months ago, makes a lovely appearance with her "T'filah (Prayer) for solo violin."  The musical-speech aspect of this work is pronounced, though of course we get no voice nor verbal equivalence. It is haunting.

Kutik's sweetly expressive power on the violin is exactly what all this music demands. He never flags but soars and whispers his way through the music like the young master he is. John Novacek (and Timo Andres on the title piece) give pianistic structure and a unwavering poetic concentration as perfect foils to Kutik's eloquence.

This program comes at you like a breath of springtime air, just sweet enough to evoke complex associations but never evoking outright sentimentality.

Well recommended!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Vyacheslav Artyomov, Symphony Gentle Emanation, Tristia II

I have been schooled in the thought that everything in life is related to everything else, to look at social life systematically. At the same time I grew up in an environment that believed strongly in the idea of progress. So to me the most modern art, the most modern music was to be sought out and experienced. My attraction to science fiction classics and the futurism of the '50s outlook reassured me that the future was going to be better, with the exception of the classic dystopias of 1984, Brave New World, or H.G. Wells' Time Machine. But even then everything worked, there was no noticeable poverty, and government control in various guises was the main negative force.

Gradually the future unfolded and yes, we have a great deal of technology in our everyday lives, but like Blade Runner the stubborn messiness of the past, the decayed nightmare of inner cities, strife between political parties and world religious fundamentalists have a huge role to play in the world arena. Much of this infiltrates all of our daily lives. And often enough at the economic fringes the technology doesn't work because capitalism has moved on with newness and ignored functionality?

So we go. I start my morning on a temporary computer hookup that is extraordinarily erratic. Here I am one hour and forty minutes into my blog writing and I've managed to find the proper cover art and download it, only to experience multiple glitches and freezes while attempting five times to write an opening sentence for this article, each one automatically deleted via a cursor defect. Now finally I have success, only my frustration gives me the impetus to vent on this future I no longer like. My partner attempted to eat the 2015 dated oatmeal we got from the food pantry (our more kindly version of what was the bread line during the depression), eventually threw it out and here we are at the edge, the periphery of modernity and, really, nothing is working from where we sit. Our leaders say "we hear you, we'll fix everything" and then proceed, some of them, to give even more to the rich and so it goes. The rich must be placated with more money, the idea of trickle down posits, so they can be in a better mood and so more inclined to help those who may well do without. OK.

Yet I still believe in the future, in modernity, and so I also out of habit and appreciation respond favorably to the experimenters, those who go boldly in music where the vast majority of musical humanity has never trodden, not at least until the turn of the last century when humanity found musical wunderkind who opened up the fertile vistas of harmonic, rhythmic and melodic possibilities we as a species had never considered before.

And for all that intro I do introduce a new (to me) high modernist voice, from Russia, one Vyacheslav Artyomov (born 1940) and a CD of two choice orchestral works, Symphony Gentle Emanation and Tristia II, Fantasy for piano and orchestra (Divine Art 25144). Surprise! This is a fully developed voice in new music, someone who has carried over the mysterious cosmos of late Scriabin and Messiaen and made something new out of the unrealized potentials that lurked behind those composers's most prescient creations. 

In spite of my grouchy social-critical beginnings today the music of Artyomov truly speaks to me. He has a full grasp, a vision of the modern orchestra and what he might make it do, and on these two symphonic works, two sides in a way of his vision, he combines brash and bracing dissonances punctuated by mysterious ruminations on the universe in play, at work, simply being in all its shining glory and mystery, its endless processual flux that presumably has purpose that we only have a dim idea of in our religions and our science, an idea of our place in it that we continually confront with the facts and revelations that humanity thus far has managed to gather about ourselves and the cosmos. That to me is fundamental to the modernist project, in music a sonic analog of what we do and do not know.

That is what Artyomov speaks to me, in elegant and vivid eloquence. The Russian National Orchestra under conductors Teodor Currentzis and Vladimir Ponkin bring this complex and very personal music into vivid relief against the seeming silence of the universe. Artyomov is a Russian who travels in the wake of those before and manages to say something new and different. That is a remarkable achievement and he most certainly deserves a hearing. 

All you modernists and seekers of the new look no further, at least today. Give a listen to Vyacheslav Artyomov on this very moving sample of his work. It gives us another way to thread the futurist needle.

And bravo to that!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Music for Violin & Viola, Mozart - Bruch - Pleyel, Davide Alogna, Jose Adolfo Alejo

For those fascinated by the intermingling of violin and viola in a duo setting, we have a worthy CD release by Davide Alogna and Jose Adolfo Alejo, on violin and viola, respectively, titled simply Music for Violin & Viola (Brilliant 2-CD 95241). One CD consists of unaccompanied duets; the other features concerted works for violin, viola and orchestra, the latter adding Camerata de Coahuila under conductor Ramon Shade.

The Duo CD features a nice mix of music from classical to modern times. Mozart's 15 minute "String Duo in G K423" sets the stage nicely, followed by Martinu's "Duo No. 1 H313," Spohr's 22 minute"Grand Duo, op. 13," Manuel Ponce's 14 minute Spanish tinged "Sonata a Duo" and John Halvorsen's classical-modern "Passacaglia on a Theme by Handel."

The various periods and styles are well in hand with a nice blending and lively expression by the two virtuosos. It is interesting to hear how each composer situates melody and figuration to create an individual fullness and balance of ranges, and for how the two artists create a balanced articulation between figure and ground or polyphonic totality, depending.

The concerted CD features two relatively obscure and one well known example. Pleyel's "Symphonie Concertante in B flat B112" has plenty of classical dash, Bruch's "Double Concerto in B minor, Op. 88" rachets up the expressive temperature a few notches in a post-Beethovian manner, and Mozart's "Sinfonia Concertante in E flat K364" has a near perfection in form and inspiration that justifies its iconic status.  Alogna and Alejo give us an almost reverent reading and the Camerata de Coahuia sound convincing and on the mark, as they do throughout.

In the end we have a wealth of wonderful showcases for violin and viola, played with the emphasis on faithful and spirited execution.