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Friday, April 21, 2017

Paul Reale, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2, Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands

The realm of solo piano music has been especially fruitful in the modern era. The movement from Debussy, Ravel and Satie to the present is marked by many brilliant signposts. An unexpected find is in the music of Paul Reale (b. 1943), as heard in the recording I was fortunate to receive, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2: Paul Reale Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands (MSR Classics 1612). This is more-or-less neo-classic modernism, with perhaps the presence of Stravinsky and Hindemith as precursors, but reshaped and reinvented with a pronounced musical imagination.

What we have entails a continuation of Volume 1, the solo piano music of Reale that came out some time ago (and I have not heard). There are eight works in all on Volume 2, world premiere recordings of some choice and articulate pianism for four hands-one piano, two pianos and one short number for two pianos eight hands.

A blow-by-blow description of the music would differentiate what for me comes across as a unified stylistic whole. It is something best experienced not a la carte but as a full, exemplary, consecutively construed feast of neo-classic cuisine, so to speak.

I cannot find any fault in the performances and in the end Paul Reale brings us a convincing group of compositions that provide substantial fare and impress in their ultimate musicality. Hear this one if you treasure the modern pianoforte and want something new.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Versus, Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, Irena Portenko, Volodymyr Sirenko, Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra

My old composition professor reacted to my expression of admiration for Prokofiev with the thought that he was compromisingly derivative of Stravinsky. We agreed to disagree. To this day I hear of course the influence, but the differences are like Beethoven to Schubert. Sure, there is a debt but there is growth and distance that marks each as a creative light as much tabula rasa as akin in a line of succession. And the music "in the air" of early 20th century Russia, or more precisely the zeitgeist of the turbulent unfolding of history of the times helps explain the expressionist affinities between the two composers as much or more than some putative sort of one-way transmission of inspiration. If you do not agree maybe you have not spent enough time with the Prokofiev opus. No matter.

Today's CD reminds us of that and of another debt Prokofiev held in the early Russian modernist flowering. It is a recording of the remarkable pianist Irena Portenko and the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra under Volodymyr Sirenko in Versus, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (BGR 417). This underscores another debt and another tabula rasa response--here, between the clangorous paradigm of the Russian romantic piano concerto as created by Tchaikovsky versus a wholly modernist clangorous brilliance from Prokofiev. Each work is a masterpiece of its kind. 50 years separate the two. They could not be more different in their use of a melodic-harmonic idiom that defines their trajectory, and yet there is something very Russian about both in their pronounced lyrical effusion.

But for a moment we should think about the Stravinsky-Prokofiev nexus and differentiation. The year 1913 marks the debut of Stravinsky's game changing "Rite of Spring." It also is the very same year that Prokofiev completed the "Piano Concerto No. 2." A 1920 fire in Prokofiev's apartment destroyed the orchestra parts, but happily his mother had retained a copy of the piano score. Prokofiev set about reconstructing the piece in 1923, and that version is the one we still hear. It makes no difference in the end but the final version most definitely has the affinity of the dissonance and some of the savagery of "The Rite of Spring." Only of course it is a masterfully moving example of Prokofiev at his original best. Do we care in the end how the version we hear is in a parallel realm to the "Rites?" Sure, but we cannot find anything here that shows any kind of copying or mimicry. The work is pure Prokofiev, one of his early triumphs, a work that stands on its own as tragic, passionate, bittersweet, prototypically brilliant in the relation of the piano part to the orchestral response.

And I am happy to say that this version is graced by the absolute fire and tenderness of Irena Portenko's performance, something that makes the music breathe and live for us as well as it ever has. That too is the case with conductor Sirenko's ability to get all the expressive saudade out of the Ukrainian National Orchestra that we could wish for. It is a remarkable performance, probably the best I have heard!

The Tchaikovsky is extraordinarily well done, too. It is instructive to hear both concertos back-to-back in this program. I will leave it to you as to the insights one may glean from the comparison.

Suffice to say that Portenko is an interpretive giant, the orchestra tuned to each work with articulate, heightened enthusiasm, and in the end you (if you are like me) are very, very glad of it.

No self-respecting modernist should omit a close interaction with the Prokofiev. Of course the Tchaikovsky is essential fare for the Russophile. And the performances are marvelous!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hanns Eisler, Hangmen Also Die, the 400 Million, The Grapes of Wrath, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Kalitzke

If we here in the States do not know the music of Hanns Eisler (1896-1962) well, it has mostly to do with his political leanings to the left and the trouble that got him into during the McCarthy era. He had embarked on a promising film score career here in the US when he ran afoul of the apparatus that sought to expose leftist artists in the media. He was deported and his music here was blacklisted more or less completely. That was a loss to us.

It is tragic, for his music bears the stamp of a modern original. Thankfully, recordings of his works are far more plentiful than they once were. A fine example is this recent release, of a number of soundtracks from his American period: Hangmen Also Die, The 400 Million and The Grapes of Wrath (Capriccio 5289).  These soundtracks cover the years 1938-43 and complement the box set of earlier works I have reviewed on these pages (see index search box above). Also included on this CD are the "Kleine Symphonie" of 1932 and the very brief "Horfleissubung" from 1931.

The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Johannes Kalitzer do the honors for these works and their dedication gives us what sound to be very fitting performances, spirited and detailed.

The pronounced modernist edge to the music recorded here reminds us that, after all, Eisler was a pupil of Schoenberg and even when composing film scores there can be heard an unwavering contemporary slant. He presents a wealth of thematic elements that attract and are situated within masterful developmental and orchestrational poetics.

The pronounced trainwreck of my life right now means that I have had a little trouble devoting the absolute attention that this music demands and deserves. Nevertheless I can vouch for its excellence. I need to come back to it all again in the near future. Still,  I do not hesitate to recommend this album to you as a very worthy presentation of substantial music from a sadly neglected period of his career. Do hear this!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Spohr, Symphony No. 4, Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Walter

The complete Spohr (1784-1859) symphonies as recorded by the Budapest Symphony with Alfred Walter conducting turns out to be a fine thing, a revelation, the symphonic life's work of a composer that has seen neglect and in the very least is worth reviving. He reflects a world where Beethoven's star shines brightly and he does it his own way.

The volume at hand covers Symphony No. 4 (Naxos 8.555398) . Spohr completed the symphony in 1832, a time of political upheaval at the court in Kassel, Germany. A new prince had assumed rule, and the money available for music was in jeopardy. Spohr set out to write a work based on Carl Pfeiffer's poem The Consecration of Sound. He ultimately decided to make it a programmatic symphony that followed closely the text. So one passage represented, for example, a gentle breeze and bird song before a storm erupts.

One need not pay strict attention to the program to appreciate the music. It is ambitious Spohr and it sounds out with a satisfying trajectory, reaffirming that Spohr was one of the great symphonists of his era. Audiences in Germany and England reacted enthusiastically. Critics distrusted the programmatic idea and had their reservations. Hearing it now we find a good deal to like, or I do at least. After all, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony stuck to a programmatic approach, too. And neither work suffers as a result!

Accompanying the symphony are two short Overtures, to Faust and Jessonda, respectively. They are welcome additions.

Now I must admit I did not have any idea what the complete Spohr symphonies would be like before I played the first volume I reviewed. A beautiful surprise was in store. Is he as good as, say, Mendelssohn? It is probably a meaningless question for he does not sound like Mendelssohn. He rings out with a personal take on the music in the air, then. What more can one expect? It is well enough. No. 4 is a gem. I am glad to have it. I suggest you spend some time with this CD.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Wagner, Symphony in C major, in E Major (Fragment), MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jun Markl

Wagner (1813-83) changed everything. His major operas brought a new way of thinking about motives and Tristan helped usher in the modern period via the pushing of harmonic language to the borders of tonality. His orchestration was bold, daring and insightful. But his concentration on opera left the purely symphonic realm to others. Composers like Bruckner came along and in part applied Wagner's innovations to the non-vocal worlds. Of course Bruckner and Mahler (and Richard Strauss) did a great deal more than that, but they were nevertheless indebted to Wagner for where they went. And so, for that matter, was Schoenberg, but that brings up more than we can handle for this post.

Interestingly enough, Wagner in his early years did write a bit of symphonic music. The two works that have come down to us, The Symphony in C major and the Symphony in E major (fragment) are available in a new Naxos release by the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jun Markl (Naxos 8.573413).

The back of the jewel case tells us that these two symphonies "stand as a tribute to Wagner's passion for his great idol Beethoven," And indeed, one hears such elements clearly throughout. They were student works, written when Wagner was in his teens and early twenties. They are remarkable for that.

But even at that early date there is something rather Wagnerian happening with these works--which may only be to say that Wagner sprung from the Beethoven ethos. But no, one gets glimpses of something further along, even if in infancy. The E Major is a fragment. Felix Mottl completed the orchestration much later. Wagner was nowhere near where he would ultimately be. Yet neither of these works seem immature fluff; they are if nothing else supremely serious undertakings. The C major is the more involved of the two, as one might imagine even before hearing.

There is thematic originality to be heard within the Beethovenian mode. Some parts seem pretty closely derivative but then there can be developmental sections that go their own way. In the end this music is of extraordinary interest to those who know the mature Wagner intimately.

Yes, you can hear the kernels of the later composer here. But you also hear a thematic naivete that was the Wagner of those years, a not unattractively expressive and talented youth saying what he could.

The music brings a goodly amount of delight. These are no masterpieces but they weather surprisingly well. Anyone who wants to trace Wagner's development will find this CD enlightening, but also a good listen in itself.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ted Hearne, Sound from the Bench, The Crossing

The Supreme Court "Citizens United" decision was, to say the very least, decidedly nothing to do with the upholding of the Constitution as the Founders thought of it. It was a perversion of logic, a fiction that has lead us to anti-democratic infusions of great wealth to undermine the election process. I am not the only one to think this. It is one of the more dangerous farces to confront us in our lifetime. Only one of more than a few, but an especially insidious one.

Composer Ted Hearne clearly is one of "us," not a man with or speaking for the influence of the grand cartel of the rich. His Sound from the Bench (Cantaloupe Music 21126) is all about Citizens United, a nightmare in a sort of poetic haze that may sublimate the horror of the judgment, but no, does not seek to diminish it. This is a choral work of a postmodern, sometimes minimalist sort. It features (as did yesterday's) the landmark choral group the Crossing with Donald McNally at the helm, plus some avant rock textures from two electric guitars and drums.

Where to begin? The corporation is a person, a ventriloquist dummy in the end. Not at all human but masquerading as one, manipulated by a wealth-manufacturing entity and acting in its interests. Hearne uses various texts to set off the decision and lament the demise of our own personhood, the degradation of the human being unit that is the core idea behind representative government.

The music has a great deal going for it. There are sophisticated multi-part passages, the deliberately banal cutting in to dramatize things, and a great deal in between. It is a work where I must admit on the strictly musical level I greatly appreciate much of it, and some elements less so. But the good outweighs the less good with a balance decidedly tipped onto the positive side. And the subject matter could not be more important to us.

So I thank Maestro Hearne for this and recommend for sure that you hear it!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century

Like any style of music, there are Post-modern composers who write beautiful, breathtaking works and others who either are inconsistent or just do not have the talent, sad to say. Of the whole bunch Gavin Bryars to me is decidedly in the first category. His music, basically anything I've heard of his, has that special something that comes through whatever the premise. A new CD,  The Fifth Century (ECM New Series 2495) brings us two choral works that are stunning in their sonic brilliance and reaffirm my appreciation of Bryars as an important voice of today.

The album features the extraordinary vibrato-less purity of the choral ensemble The Crossing, conducted by David Nally. It is hard to imagine a better performance of these works and the ECM sound brings out the music with a heightened brightness.

The opening title work combines the Crossing with the equally appropriate sounds of the saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet. Bryars brings the two groups into close intersection in harmonically uncliched, always stimulating and ravishing ways. He has perfect control over the ambient and linear dimensions as he hears them. Indeed no matter how many times I listen to this work it sounds ever fresh.

The same is true but in a somewhat more intimate way on "Two Love Songs" for female choir a capella.

I come away from this music reluctantly. I want to come back to it as soon as possible. Does the awakening of nature on these fine days have something to do with it? It seems like the open hopeful choral sounds here help "improve" nature or provide it a most evocative soundtrack. I am sure whatever the season this music will give us pause, help us revel in the sensuous mysteries of existence.

Does this sound like a strong recommendation? I hope so. Because it is. Wonderful.