Thielemann’s Beethoven on Sony (CD Review)

Beethoven

9 Symphonies

Wiener Philharmoniker; Christian Thielemann, conductor

Sony Classical

Beethoven

Leonore Overture No. 3; Symphony No. 7

San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

SFSO Label


One of the curmudgeonly reviewer’s cudgels, frequently wielded at recent recordings of repertory standards, is the lead off line “Do we need another recording of ____?”

Sets of Beethoven symphonies frequently get thwacked with this one. After all, any conductor with the temerity to record a Beethoven symphony when so many sets are already available is bound to be compared to any number of luminaries who’ve recorded the “canonical 9″ and already have fans of their work lined up around the block. But ill-tempered critics should take note of two new recordings of Beethoven – one a complete set and another a single disc offering. Both suggest that, with the right orchestra and an inspired conductor at the helm, even the most well known pieces can accommodate new renderings with fresh insights.

Of course, recording Beethoven with the Vienna Philharmonic may, at first blush, seem like the musical equivalent of  taking a thoroughbred  out for a canter. The greatest challenge may be surmounting  potentially ingrained habits inculcated in performers who have played these pieces hundreds of times already in a solidified, traditional manner. Christian Thielemann appears to have little interest in provocative interpretive choices. Thus his approach is no doubt a sympathetic one for Vienna’s musicians. That said, there are plenty of nuanced choices that will cause listeners to hear passages afresh. Indeed,  Thielemann opts for a very detailed rendering of the scores in performances that are finely shaded dynamically and include myriad small tempo shifts that make the symphonies seem supple, vibrant, and still capable of surprises. Throughout, the Vienna Phil is a responsive partner in these efforts. It certainly doesn’t hut that the recordings sound excellent and are packaged in a compact yet handsome boxed set. For those interested in an educational component, the set also includes a “Making Beethoven” documentary on DVD.

While Leonore Overture No. 3 is hardly one of Beethoven’s best pieces, the San Francisco Symphony, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas in this live recording, provide it with a slow boil intensity that eventually gives way to tempestuous tutti. With this kind of assured treatment, which makes the most of the score’s contrasts and heightens its somewhat latent dramatic potential, it’s not hard to connect the dots between this overture and the overtures one hears in early Verdi operas.

The main course here, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, is given similarly energetic treatment in a sweeping performance that contains fireworks (and explosive fortes) aplenty. However, Tilson Thomas never sacrifices detail in order to provide a convincing musical narrative. In particular, the poised and perfectly paced rendition of the symphony’s second movement is a thing to cherish. One of several recordings SFSO is releasing this year, it’s well worth seeking out.

Ann Southam: “Soundings” on Irritable Hedgehog (CD Review)

Ann Southam

Soundings for a New Piano

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog CD EP/DL

Canadian composer Ann Southam, who passed away in 2010 (Alex Ross and Tamara Bernstein eulogize her here), wrote in a number of genres. But her solo piano works are particularly distinctive. Written in 1986, Soundings for a New Piano is an evocative title. One can imagine many a contemporary composer doing similarly when confronted with a “fresh instrument:” trying out various post-tonal harmonies, arpeggiating them to test the piano’s tone, tuning, and voicing propensities.

As William Robin points out in his astute liner notes, Southam combines the minimal repetition of ascending and descending arpeggiations with a harmonic tendency characteristic in her later music: a single twelve tone row that she morphed into various guises throughout multiple works. Combining the regular rhythms of post-minimalism with a row that contains consonances leavened and savored, rather than eradicated, by widely spaced dissonances, Southam creates a polystylistic world that is singular, self-contained, and often quite lushly attired.

Pianist R. Andrew Lee is a sensitive interpreter who recognizes the detailed and delicate character of Soundings. He uses pedaling in an impressionist manner, with delicate blurring around the edges of the omnipresent verticals, to further give these harmonies an organic and interconnected ambience. At twenty-three minutes, Soundings doesn’t overstay its welcome. In fact, it may well whet the listener’s appetite for some of her more extended compositional excursions: Recommended.

Tuesday: Garth Knox at LPR (CD; Concert Preview)

Saltarello

Garth Knox, viola & fiddle

with Agnès Vesterman, cello & Sylvain Lemêtre, percussion

ECM Records CD 2157

Dance music in multiple forms, from the saltarello, a Venetian dance dating back to the Fourteenth century, to  Breton and Celtic folk music, as well as transcriptions of medieval era compositions, Renaissance era consort music, and contemporary fare, are featured on Saltarello, violist Garth Knox’s latest ECM CD.  Among the early music slections, Particularly impressive is a Vivaldi concerto, performed in a duo arrangement for viola d’amore and cello. Its interpreters, Knox and Agnès Vesterman, take this continuo less opportunity to accentuate a supple contrapuntal interplay between soloist and bass line. Equally lovely is a piece that combines music by Hildegard and Machaut in a kind of medieval style mash-up. Also stirring is this duo’s version of John Dowland’s most famous piece, Lachrimae, perhaps known best in its incarnation as the song “Flow My Tears.”

Knox, who is a past member of both Ensemble Intercontemporain and the Arditti String Quartet, also performs the disc’s newer material with consummate musicality: he also has the bedeviling habit of making virtuosic writing sound far too easy to play (his poor violist colleagues!). Knox’s own composition, “Fuga Libre,” combines jazz rhythms and neo-baroque counterpoint with ever more complicated harmonic tension points and several instances in which Knox demonstrates various extended playing techniques. Meanwhile, Kaaija Saariaho’s Vent Nocturne, an eerily evocative and tremendously challenging piece for viola and electronics, is given a haunting, sonically sumptuous rendering.

________________________________

Tomorrow night, Knox celebrates the release of the CD at LPR (details below). Early music, new pieces by and for Knox, and lovely comestibles on menu and on tap? Sounds like my evening’s planned!

Event Details

Tuesday May 22nd – Doors open at 6:30, show starts at 7:30

Le Poisson Rouge

158 Bleecker Street, NYC| 212.505.FISH

music of Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut
John Dowland, Henry Purcell, Antonio Vivaldi, Kaija Saariaho, and Garth Knox

Zammuto: S/T LP (Review)

Zammuto S/T LP

Zammuto
Zammuto
Temporary Residence Ltd.

Best known as half of The Books, an indie duo that incorporated both electronica and classical crossover signatures (before the latter was cool!), Nick Zammuto recently released his first solo LP for Temporary Residence.But rather than being a ‘music minus one’ presentation, a recording in which part of a distinctive collaboration is sorely missed, Zammuto has a distinctive sound all its own.

Its leadoff track, “Yay,” underlines that point with an interesting use of vocoder, crafting layers of beat-boxing in counterpoint to skittering live drums and sustained organ lines. Modified vocals are instead employed as longer melodies swaths on “Groan Men, Don’t Cry,” where they are set against syncopated guitar riffs, prog-inflected synth work, and funky percussion fills. “F U C3PO” combines appropriately sci-fi-sounding effects with saucy vocoder singing, taunting the droid mocked in the song’s title.

While this frequent employment of synthetic vocal production could, and, in other settings has, become a gimmick, here Zammuto uses it to provide a distressed, glitchy alternative to the lush sonic palette found on his records as part of the the Books. And don’t assume that the arrangements on Zammuto are only about gadgetry. One need only check out the bass line on “The Shape of Things to Come,” not to mention its varied array of percussion, imaginatively deployed and performed with zesty elan, to belay that notion.

Whether within the Books or as a solo act, one looks forward to many more interesting sounds from Nick Zammuto.

Yay (via Tumblr)

Suzanne Ciani: “Lixiviation” (CD Review)

Lixiviation – “To wash or percolate the soluble matter from.” (Dictionary.com)

Suzanne Ciani
Lixiviation
B-Music BMS040 CD

A sampler’s paradise and a vivid musical time capsule, Lixiviation is a compilation of analog synth guru Suzanne Ciani’s commercial work, as well as studio and live excerpts, from 1969-1985. It includes numerous clips for Atari, TV commercial spots (with clients ranging from Coca-Cola to PBS), a clip from a live concert using Buchla gear in 1975, and excerpts from her contributions to film scores (including the title track, a collaboration with mercury sculptor Ronald Mallory).

The versatility of projects represented is matched by  versatility of sonic approaches. Indeed, it’s interesting to hear such a wide chronological swath of the synthesist’s work. A decade and a half, particularly in these relatively early days of the development of synthesizer technology, encompasses multiple generations of gear; as well as, for Ciani, a significant evolution of aesthetic orientation and artistic approach. The general move is from a more ambient, slowly evolving, and improvisatory approach to leaner, tauter structures (as befits working within the constraints of corporate project time frames). The CD makes apparent the debt owed to Ciani by new age, bleep, glitch, sci-fi scores, ambient electronica, and those spearheading today’s analog synth revival.

A (small) caveat: Lixiviation is not curated from a chronological vantage point: its tracks are arranged somewhat more whimsically, perhaps to demonstrate the diversity of approaches adopted by Ciani. Nor are all the tracks precisely dated in the liner notes. Those looking for more a accurate provenance for some of the music will have to do a bit of web sleuthing (in the name of pop musicology) on their own.

And the winner of the David Lang competition is…

Congratulations to pianist Peter Poston for winning the David Lang 2011 Competition.

Below is his award-winning entry, a performance of Wed, submitted via YouTube:

Poston will get to perform as part of an all Lang program at le poisson rouge in New York City on May 6, 2012 at 5pm. The concert at LPR includes Andrew Zolinsky performing selections from the CD, a new 4-hand piano work premiered by Zolinsky and Poston, a new 6-hand piano piece for the 3 runners-up – Catarina Domenici, Katherine Dowling, and Denise Fillion – and performances by guitar legend Derek Johnson and other special guests.

This Was Written by Hand

Piano Music by David Lang

Andrew Zolinsky, piano

Cantaloupe Music CD

Wed, the audition piece for the David Lang 2011 Competition, is featured on This Was Written By Hand, David Lang’s latest CD, a recital disc recorded for Cantaloupe by pianist Andrew Zolinksy. It is one of eight “Memory Pieces” included on the disc. This group serves as postminimal “Characterstucke,” an attractive and mercurial group of contrasting miniatures.

Then there is the touching title work. One of Lang’s most organically constructed pieces, it was, indeed, written by hand and intuitively constructed. A meditation on the ephemeral nature of life, it captures a similar poignancy to Lang’s recent vocal work “Little Matchgirl Passion,” but writ smaller, more intimately. To both this and the Memory Pieces, Zolinsky brings a fluid grace and subtlety that abets the spontaneous, almost improvisatory, character of the material.

Nada Surf: The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy (Review)

Nada Surf

The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy

Barsuk Records

If, twenty years and seven albums in to their tenure as a band, Nada Surf aren’t quite as youthful as they once were, they’ve retained a strong sense of connection to the music of their heyday atop the indie pop charts in the mid nineties. On The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, their latest full length recording for Barsuk, the songs’ lyrics may be more reflective, ruminating on the onset of middle age (“Clear Eye Clouded Mind” and “No Snow on the Mountain”) and casting a backward glance towards departed youth (“Teenage Dreams,” and see “When I Was Young” below). But there’s no bathetic nostalgia here. Rather, the band seems invigorated by the stocktakings. Guitars still crunch with elan, grooves are still propelled with taut energy, and hooks still buoy choruses aplenty. Indeed, the prevailing atmosphere is imbued with a similar zesty ebullience to that found in the power pop on Nada Surf’s earlier albums. Recapturing the enthusiasm of youth while retaining the wisdom of one’s middle years? Sounds like a formula for success, in power pop and in life in general.

Punch Brothers’ “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” out on Valentine’s Day

Punch Brothers
Who’s Feeling Young Now
Nonesuch Records

The Punch Brothers’ release Who’s Feeling Young Now, their latest CD, this coming Tuesday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, via Nonesuch Records. The next night, the band is appearing on the Tonight Show, gearing up for the start of their national tour on February 17th (dates below).

True, the Punch Brothers play a brand of bluegrass/pop fusion that’s been just as likely to explore the sadder aspects of love affairs as celebrate life’s finer moments, and this is certainly true on their latest recording. Thus, it’s not the audio equivalent of a box of chocolates for your sweetheart. But the band never gets mired in their bluesier ruminations. Many of the songs contained herein jubilate in fulsome bluegrass swing. In particular, mandolinist and songwriter Chris Thile seems to be be upping the ante, channeling the Flecktones in their penchant for mixed time signatures and copiously syncopated solos. For evidence of the group’s zesty ensemble work, download the free track “Movement and Location” via the embedded widget below.

Most of the songs are penned by the band; songwriter Josh Ritter contributes lyrics to a couple of Thile compositions. The album also features two covers; quirky and distinct renditions of Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Swedish folk band Väsen’s “Flippen” are both unexpected delights.







Punch Brother 2012 U.S. Tour Dates

February 17, Appalachian State Performing Arts Series, Boone, NC
February 18, Brooklyn Arts Center at St. Andrews, Wilmington, NC
February 19, Shaftman Performance Hall, Roanoke, VA
February 23, Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA ^
February 24, Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA ^
February 25, Higher Ground, South Burlington, VT ^
March 1, Park West, Chicago, IL ^
March 2, Varsity Theater, Minneapolis, MN ^
March 3, Liberty Hall, Lawrence, KS ^
March 6, Neptune Theatre, Seattle, WA ^
March 7, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR ^
March 8, The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA ^
March 10, El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA ^
March 12, Bluebird Theater, Denver, CO ^
April 15, Mountain Stage Radio, Morgantown, WV
April 17, Lexington Opera House, Lexington, KY *
April 19, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, TN *
April 20, Cannery Ballroom, Nashville, TN *
April 21, Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA *
April 22, Track 29, Chattanooga, TN *
April 24, Theatre of the Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA *
April 26, The Town Hall, New York, NY *
April 27, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC *
April 28, MerleFest 25, Wilkesboro, NC
June 2, Appalachian Uprising, Scottown, OH
June 16-17, Clearwater Festival, Croton-on-Hudson, NY
June 21-24, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride, CO
June 28-30, ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival, Owensboro, KY
July 27-29, RockyGrass, Lyons, CO
July 28, FloydFest 11, Floyd, VA
~ with Loudon Wainwright III
^ with Aoife O’Donovan
* with Jesca Hoop

Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach and Schubert (CD Review)

Something Almost Being Said

Works by J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert

Simone Dinnerstein, piano

Sony Classical CD

Simone Dinnerstein sometimes serves as the Bach pianist antipode of the late Glenn Gould. Where Gould set the pace for Bach playing at an often prestissimo, sometimes frantic, clip, Dinnerstein often seems willing to exult in elegant turns of phrase and luxuriate in legato lines, requiring a more stately pace. This observation is not meant to suggest that Dinnerstein isn’t capable of her own moments of presto-infused abandon, as one can hear on Something Almost Being Said in the sprightly movements of Bach Partitas Nos. 1 and 2. But these are balanced by cantabile sections that accentuate breaths between phrases. As the Sony CD’s title suggests, Dinnerstein seeks to emulate the phrasing of vocalists and extol the melodic suavity of both J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert. This goal is never achieved through mannered playing or fussily implemented rubato. Rather, Dinnerstein successfully captures the elusive fluidity that tempo fluctuations require in order to seem organic.

Schubert is represented by the four Op. 90 Impromptus, pieces in which the composer provides seamless linear trajectories of his own. Dinnerstein makes the widely contrasting dynamics and the more bravura passages of these works stand out in stark contrast to their effusively shimmering legato passages. Notably, her traversal of the famously challenging chestnut, No. 3 in G-flat Major, is spellbinding. While instrumental music can, at best, provide us with unspoken communication that is “almost said,” metaphorically at least this recording “speaks” volumes. Recommended.

Guest post: Andy Lee on Ann Southam’s Valedictory CD

Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.

Returnings

Eve Egoyan, Piano

Works by Ann Southam

Centrediscs CMCCD 17211

As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.

My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.

Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)

The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.

The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.

The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.

That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.

The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.

This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”

I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.

-Andy Lee