Monk’s Piano Songs

 

Meredith Monk

Piano Songs

Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, pianists

ECM New Series CD 2374

 

Meredith Monk is best known for her vocal works. However, she has been writing for the piano since early on in her studies and has mature works in her catalog that date back to the 1970s. Starting in the 1980s, she began to write a number of pieces for piano duo. Both solo works and duos are represented on this ECM CD of her piano music, played expertly and energetically by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker. They even engage in a bit of hand percussion and vocal call and response on the ebullient “Folkdance.“

 

As Monk points out in her liner notes, these are pieces that may seem simple on the surface. This is deceiving. Accounting for all their details and dealing with the slightly off-kilter rhythmic sensibility that is so often brought to bear in the works is quite tricky. One might wonder why the selections are called “Piano Songs.” Truth be told, Monk’s work, be it for instruments or voices, retains such a strongly vocal quality to the shaping of its lines that calling these pieces songs, much like Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, seems apt.

Anna Gourari: Canto oscuro

2255_Gourari_PF3.jpg

If you have not yet heard Canto oscuro pianist Anna Gourari’s recent debut for ECM Records, you are missing out.The CD’s program combines affecting performances of transcriptions by Ferrucio Busoni of chorales and the Chaconne in d-minor by J.S. Bach with modern repertoire by Paul Hindemith and Sofia Gubaidulina (another Chaconne). The recording shows Gourari capable of performing repertoire in a wide range of moods: from the brash Ragtime movement found in the Hindemith suite to the gravitas and grandeur required in the Bach/Busoni transcriptions. One through line: she makes technically demanding repertoire sound far too achievable by mere mortals.

I’d hoped to get a chance to hear her live tonight in a performance at the German Consulate in New York, but it was not to be. I’ll have to content myself with the luminous performances on Canto oscuro and hope she visits New York again soon.

File Under ?’s Best of 2012: Rangell and Schiff’s Bach CDs

Bach: The Art of Fugue
Andrew Rangell, piano
Steinway & Sons CD

 

Bach: Das Wohltemperiete Clavier
András Schiff, piano
ECM Records CD

Those who read this site likely already know that I have a soft spot for well performed renditions of J.S. Bach’s music. That said, I’ve seldom felt as strongly about a recording of The Art of Fugue that employs piano instead of harpsichord or ensemble as I do about Andrew Rangell’s recent disc for Steinway & Sons’ label. Let’s face it, even with all of the contrapuntal intricacies and rhythmic variety that Bach employs in constructing this late masterwork, it is still a whole lot of unabated d-minor to which to listen. In their interpretations, too many pianists go too far one way or the other: pretending that they are playing a harpsichord and supplying their recording with attendant quirks or instead ignoring period practices altogether and allowing their pacing to become inert, their tone stodgy, and the work as a consequence to seem bloated. Rangell’s got the “Goldilocks solution” for Art of Fugue; with lively pacing and  rhythmic vitality but without ignoring the capabilities of the glorious Steinway grand at his disposal, the pianist’s recording seems “just right” yet still capable of affording surprises.

Another excellent recording released this year that seems “just right” in its approach to Bach is pianist András Schiff’s latest rendition of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier for ECM Records. Schiff is a pianist I’ve long regarded as a musical touchstone: one of the finest interpreters of Bach at the piano and a necessarily solid  counterweight to some of Glenn Gould’s extravagances and extroversion. His WTC for ECM demonstrates detailed preparation as well as intimate familiarity with all of the preludes and fugues; no doubt this is abetted by a rigorous performance scheduled incorporating these pieces. Schiff is also willing to take risks and try some different interpretations this time out. He never treats the Bach oeuvre as an ossified canon, but as an evolving document in which composer and interpreter can engage in a kind of dialogue, separated by centuries but united in this stirring music.

 

Jörg Widmann: Elegie (CD Review)

Jörg Widmann
Elegie

Widmann, clarinet; Heinz Holliger, oboe;
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Christoph Poppen, conductor

ECM New Series 2110

39 year old Jörg Widmann is a virtuoso clarinetist and one of Germany’s rising stars in the realm of music composition. Both of these aspects of his talents are on display in a new portrait disc released by ECM Records. Christoph Poppen, one of the label’s mainstays (another multi-talented musician – a fine violinist and conductor) leads the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in a program that displays Widmann as a musician with a diversity of interests and a multi-faceted compositional toolkit to match.

The disc’s title work features Widmann playing a plethora of extended techniques, haloed by orchestral writing that is primarily atmospheric with occasional fierce outbursts. Messe, despite its moniker and movement titles mirroring the Ordinary of the liturgy, is for large orchestra sans voices. Fastidious attention is given to contrapuntal details in several “contrapuncti” movements. Elsewhere a juxtaposition of weighty tutti and long-breathed angular melodies provide some surprising textural shifts.

Fünf Bruchstücke (1997) are early works that feature clarinet and oboe. The latter duties are fulfilled by oboist/composer Heinz Holliger (another formidable double threat!). The two are given many opportunities to display the extended technical capabilities of their respective instruments. But it is the sense of cat and mouse interaction and the energetic elan that typifies much of the compositions’ demeanor that make them far more captivating than many a virtuoso showcase.

Widmann weds musicality and technical facility seamlessly. While the episodic nature of this program gives tantalizing glimpses of his potential, one looks forward to the composer/clarinetist expanding his horizons to larger formal designs on a future recording.

Stifters Dinge on ECM (CD Review)

Heiner Goebbels
Stifters Dinge
ECM Records New Series CD

Stifters Dinge is a “soundtrack album” for a 2007 theatrical installation by composer/director Heiner Goebbels.The work features five mechanical pianos that were reconfigured to produce all sorts of sounds, pianistic and otherwise. Spoken word excerpts by famous figures — Claude Levi-Strauss, William S. Burroughs, and Malcom X — along with Bill Patterson’s mellifluous reading of a text by the work’s titular figure, Romantic era writer Adelbert Stifter, are joined by field recordings from far flung destinations: Greece, Latin America, and Papua New Guinea .

Photo: © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.

Integral to the work’s staging are elemental components: water, ice, smoke, stones, etc. These supply still another layer of the recording’s sound world. Often, as one finds with the crackling ice recordings heard during Patterson’s narration, these natural sounds take on a role supportive of the piece’s narrative. Elsewhere they seem to be part of its abstract musical fabric. The music itself is of similarly varigated design. The mechanical pianos sometimes make utterances closer to the realm of found sound and experimental electronics. These are mixed with more identifiably pianistic scalar passages. Chromatic clusters and, contrastingly, a bit of Bach’s Italian Concerto, make appearances.

Photo © Mario del Curto. Used with kind permission.

Of course, questions of identity are inevitably posed when confronting any work by Goebbels: what does this accumulation of disparate stuff mean? Does it cohere? I can’t answer the first question, as I’m certain that there as many pathways into Stifters Dinge as there are elements contained within it. And the second question is elusive too. Goebbels allows his materials to share the same space without forcing them into congruity. Instead, the listener (and, in the case of a live performance, viewer) is invited to engage with a design built out of elements that are in a variety of relationships with one another: sometimes in tension or opposition and at others in accord. And, one finds that when these simpatico sonic meetings happen, like oases in the midst of flux, they are often quite moving. Thus, Goebbels treats both the sounds with which he composes and the listeners who attend to them with a great deal of respect. Stifters Dinge may require much, even from a thoughtful listener, but it rewards them with an imaginative labyrinth of appealing sounds to explore.

Hirundo Maris


Hirundo Maris
Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen
ECM New Series 2227 CD/Digi

Swiss soprano and harpist Arianna Savall pairs with Norwegian folksinger, Hardanger fiddle player, and mandolinist Petter Udland Johansen on Hirundo Maris (Latin for “Sea Swallow”), a recording on ECM’s New Series. They are joined by Sveinung Lilleheier (guitar, Dobro, backing vocals),  Miquel Àngel Cordero (double-bass, backing vocals), and David Mayoral (percussion, backing vocals) in an outing that combines folk material from multiple traditions (from both Northern and Southern Europe), early music instruments and performance practices, and improvised original pieces.

This is one of the recordings that we keep playing: at home, in the car on the way to work; I’ve even inserted it into a classroom lecture. Like many ECM releases, the overall ambiance is lovely: spacious yet detailed with each voice and instrument able to be pinpointed in the sound field with crystalline clarity.

The material is heavily weighted towards ballads, including particularly lovely versions of  ”The Water is Wide” and the Catalan traditional song “El Mestre:” a showcase for Savall’s lustrous soprano. But the program is punctuated by livelier selections too; the Sephardic song “Ya salio de la mar” and the Norwegian folksong “Ormen lange,” a terrifically syncopated tour de force for both Johansen and Mayoral. This is certain to be on many “best of” lists of recordings at the end of the year: ours included.

 

Hilliard Ensemble Sings Gesualdo (CD Review)

Carlo Gesualdo

Quinto Libro di Madrigali

Hilliard Ensemble

ECM New Series CD

It’s tempting, yet often misleading, to create direct parallels between life and art. The music of Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613), effusively expressive and, at times, wildly chromatic to many 21st century listeners, has likely become inextricably linked to the scandalous facets of his biography. But the musical traits which made Gesualdo’s madrigals so memorable needn’t be treated as isolated phenomena perpetrated by an unbalanced individual. Gesualdo was not the only composer in his circle who experimented with what are now considered unusual musical practices: unprepared modulations, colorfully chromatic melodic embellishments, and audacious text-painting devices. He’s just the Neopolitan madrigalist who did so most memorably.

For this ECM recording of Gesualdo’s fifth book of madrigals, Hilliard Ensemble members countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor Steven Harrold, and bass Gordon Jones join forces with guest artists soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould: both singers who have appeared with the ensemble, in concert and on record, in the past. Their intonation, throughout the wending and widely diverging chromatic pathways found in these pieces, is flawless. In addition, one senses a forward momentum and particularization of articulation that impels us to savor as well the considerably intricate rhythmic dimensions of this music.

Another joy in hearing this recording is noting that, despite attention to these various details, the Hilliard Ensemble never exaggerates them. With such rich and evocative repertoire at their disposal, all too frequently, one hears vocal groups overplay their hand. Balancing passion with restraint is too rarely found in Gesualdo recordings; negotiating the correct calculus for this makes the Hilliard Ensemble’s rendition a benchmark one. 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

Tim Berne; new CD and Snakeoil Tour

Today I interviewed saxophonist Tim Berne in Brooklyn for a feature article that will appear in the next issue of Signal to Noise Magazine, the journal for improvised and experimental music. In a beleaguered market for print publications, particular for music magazines, I’m so pleased that StN editor and publisher Pete Gershon is working hard to keep the publication alive. The hope is that there will be two issues this year.

Snake Oil, Tim’s first CD on ECM as a leader (he’s supported David Torn and Michael Formanek on other ECM releases) is out this week (2/7/12). A quartet date, the personnel includes Berne playing alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega playing clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell playing piano, and Ches Smith playing drums and a number of other percussion instruments.

An enthusiastic collaborator who has been in many more bands than a blog post can contain, Berne brings a “chamber jazz” aesthetic to this project, with gig-tested charts that have rigorous compositional structures but leave plenty of room for improvisation and on-the-spot inspiration. A gracious interviewee, Tim spoke about this project and several other current endeavors. Pete has given us a generous word count (how often do writers get that these days), and I’m really looking forward to covering Snakeoil and a host of other subjects in the article.

Below, you can see another incarnation of this group, the Los Totopos band, playing live via YouTube.  We’ve also included dates for the tour Berne is undertaking in support of Snakeoil on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tour dates

Feb 16 Boston, MA Regattabar

Feb 17 New York, NY Rubin Museum

Feb 18 Baltimore, MD An die Musik live!

Feb 19 Washington DC Bohemian caverns

Feb 24 Austin, TX

Feb 25 Los Angeles, CA Blue Whale

Feb 27 Santa Cruz, CA Kuumbwa

Feb 28 Oakland, CA Yoshi’s

Feb 29 Eugene, OR The Shedd

Mar 1 Seattle, WA Seattle Asian Art Museum

Mar 2 Portland, OR Alberta Rose Theater

Mar 14 &15 London,Vortex, United Kingdom

Mar 16 Munich, Unterfahrt, Germany

Mar 17 Forlì—Italy

Mar 20 Ljubljana Cankarjev Dom, Slovenia

Mar 22+23 Paris, Triton, France

Mar 24 Bergamo—Italy

Mar 25 Cologne, Stadtgarten,  Germany

Mar 26 Berlin A-Trane, Germany

Mar 27 Rotterdam Lantaren Venster, Netherlands

Mar 28 Amsterdam, Bimhuis, Netherlands

Mar 29 Dublin—Ireland

Noteworthy in 2011 – Reto Bieri: Contrechant on ECM (CD Review)

Contrechant
Reto Bieri, clarinet
Works by Berio, Carter, Eötvös, Holliger, Sciarrino, and Vajda

ECM New Series CD 2209

One of the best recital discs I heard in 2011 did not feature an instrument typically associated with the genre. Contrechant is a disc comprised of all contemporary works performed by Swiss clarinetist Reto Bieri. All solos: no piano accompaniment or contributions from other instrumentalists. But the proceedings are hardly monophonic or monochromatic. Even Luciano Berio’s  Lied (1983), which opens the disc with a phrase or so gently articulated “song-like” melody, does not remain a “single line” piece for long: this texture is complicated by repeated note ostinati and wide-ranging leaps.  While Lied isn’t as hypervirtuosic as the clarinet Sequenza, it proves to be an elegant introduction to the rigorous material that will be found on the disc, as well as the formidable technical skill and focused interpretative powers possessed by Bieri. Indeed, Contrechant is a showcase for the clarinet’s versatility and its extensive repertoire of extended techniques.

A case in point is “Lightshadow-trembling,” by Hungarian (now residing in the US) composer, conductor, and clarinetist Gergely Vajda. The piece spends a great deal of its duration requiring the clarinetist to perform pedal tones in conjunction with a compound melody and copious trilling, creating a far denser texture than many listeners would assume possible when presented with the mislabel “single line instrument.” After this sustained, breathless (or, rather, circular breathed) flurry, late in the piece, Vajda allows the clarinetist to attack single sustained notes: the resultant starkness is startling. This was the first piece I’ve heard from Vajda: I look forward to hearing more.

One of Vajda’s teachers, the acclaimed composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, contributes a very different work: Derwischtánz. It is lyrical and questing, with beautiful runs that start in the chalumeau register and cascade up to long, sustained, pianissimo notes in the instrument’s upper register to end each phrase. A few trills at the work’s close seem to serve as foreshadowing for Vajda’s later perambulations.

“Let me die before I wake,” by Salvatore Sciarrino revels in extended techniques, such as  multiphonics and whistle tones. But these never seem gimmicky; instead they give the clarinet an otherworldly, “sci-fi” ambiance that is quite haunting. Virtuoso oboist and composer Heinz Holliger knows a thing or two about wind instruments. His Contrechant (2007) cast in five short movements, takes up where Sciarrino leaves off, putting the clarinet through its paces, including extraordinary measures: slap tonguing, extended glissandi, vocalizations, microtones, and  altissimo register squalls. It is a bracing, yet dramatically compelling, ultra-modernist composition. More reflective, although still possessing considerable angularity and a wildly shifting demeanor, is Rechant (2008), a through-composed companion piece.

This is Bieri’s second recording of Elliott Carter’s Gra (1993), one of the ‘early’ works of the now 103 year-old composer’s ‘late’ period. It is one of a number of relatively brief single movement piecess that Carter penned during the 90s and 00s and, I believe, one of his best. In Gra, for the most part  Carter eschews the special effects employed by the aforementioned composers; he instead displays absolute command, both of the instrument’s idiomatic capabilities and of a rigorously compressed harmonic and gestural language. The piece’s exquisite pacing and, for Carter, relatively new found directness of expression, make it one of the great works for solo clarinet. Since his first recording of the piece, Bieri’s interpretation has grown, is ever more sure-footed and specific in all of its details: I’m glad he recorded it a second time. Let’s hope ECM invites him back to make another CD. Pairing him with one of the label’s many talented pianists could make for a deadly duo disc.