Anna Gourari: Canto oscuro


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

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.

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.

Hosokawa’s Landscapes on ECM (CD Review)

Toshio Hosokawa
Mayumi Miyata, shô;
Munich Chamber Orchestra; Alexander Liebreich, conductor

Composer Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955) has been featured once before on an ECM recording, as one of three composers programmed on a recital disc by Thomas Demenga. Landscapes is his first portrait disc for the imprint. It features a number of fine performers who are ideal advocates for Hosokawa’s fluid and multifaceted musical language. The Munich Chamber Orchestra, led by Alexander Liebreich, has become a featured ensemble on ECM’s New Series. The quality of their interpretations here readily support the notion of them remaining a ‘house band’ for the Manfred Eicher curated imprint.

Hosokawa’s work combines the influences of Darmstadt school second modernity with elements from traditional Japanese (and Chinese) culture, ranging from gagaku (courtly ceremonial music) and the employment of traditional instruments to examples from fine art: calligraphy and landscape paintings. In works like Ceremonial Dance and Cloud and Light, one is impressed with how seamlessly these various, at times disparate, elements are synthesized. This is particularly evident on Ceremonial Dance, where acerbic harmonies combine with sliding tones to fashion a hybrid of East/West techniques that sounds truly organic and self-contained. Cloud and Light works from a similar palette. But here there is also an interesting juxtaposition of delicate sustained shô and string chords and thunderous low register outbursts.

In addition to participating in Cloud and Light, shô (mouth organ) player Mayumi Miyata is also featured on two other pieces on the disc. Back in 1993, Landscape V was originally scored for shô and string quartet. This updated version for larger ensemble works equally well; both renditions are hauntingly eloquent tone poems. Miyata takes a solo turn on Sakura für Otto Tomek, a work filled with slowly evolving complex clusters of harmony. Sakura’s meditative ambience is shadowed with portentous overtones, creating a rich showcase for the singular and fetching timbres of the shô.

Hosokawa has long been respected in both Japan and Europe. Of late, given the strong reception given Matsukaze, his second opera, in Berlin, his stock has risen considerably in the Euro Zone. One hopes that more American conductors and ensembles will take notice of Hosokawa, a composer with a compelling individual voice developing an impressive body of work. This recording should help!

Trygve Seim makes NY debut on 9/11

Last year, saxophonist Trygve Seim and pianist Andreas Utnem collaborated on Purcor, a recording for the ECM imprint (Seim’s sixth as leader). Drawing on material from a wide range of sources, including settings of the Mass, folk music, and Seim’s own compositions, it was among the recordings in frequent rotation when I got home from the hospital this past November. Needing a calm environment in which to regenerate and reflect, I found Purcor to be the perfect listening to accompany a healing respite.

Meditative yet soulful, earnest yet elegant, gently articulated yet substantively thoughtful, Seim and Utnem craft a series of duets that are spellbinding. Consistently succor supplying and diverse in mood and musical approach, the compositions on Purcor inhabit both jazz and an ecumenical kind of musical liturgy.

Given what they’ve crafted on the recording, I have no doubt that Seim and Utnem will provide an affecting evening of music this Sunday. Those seeking solace in artistic expression during this weekend’s commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks have many options from which to choose, but this is one that will doubtless provide calm  in the midst of storms of media frenzy, terror alerts, and turbulent memories. Recommended.

In Concert
Trygve Seim / Andreas Utnem
September 11th, 7pm
Norwegian Seamen’s Church
317 East 52nd Street
New York, NY 10022-6302
(212) 319-0370

Free of charge

Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones
Andreas Utnem: piano, harmonium

Reinventing student works as masterworks

Bach: Inventionen und Sinfonien; Franzosische Suite V

Till Felner

ECM Records


Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, relatively brief 2-part and 3-part contrapuntal works, were written as teaching pieces, designed for study of cantabile playing and the composing & improvising of counterpoint. They served as a ‘way station’ between the simple pieces of the notebooks and his more elaborate suites, partitas, and fugues. Thus, recordings of them have often been greeted with less fanfare than releases which featured these latter, challenging pieces.

But as any pianist, amateur or professional, will tell you, there’s a lot to the Inventions. They may be diminutive in scope; but to be played well, they require far more musicality and imagination than the technical drills of Hanon and Czerny. Till Fellner’s recording of the Inventions on ECM is a reminder of how wondrous these works are, both as studies but, more principally, as compositional miniatures in their own right. Not only is his technical execution of them brilliant – his whirlwind traversals of the d-minor and F-major Inventions are stunners – but Fellner also approaches  the works with an eye towards structure, shaping phrases and shading motives & countermotives through terraced dynamics and fastidious articulations.

French Suite V in G-major is a sentimental favorite; it’s the first one I studied as a youngster, and shortly thereafter, also the first I heard on record; Glenn Gould’s lightning-fast reading made me despair at my own, comparatively slothful, tempi. In addition to Gould, there are several wonderful renditions recorded – Schiff and Perahia immediately come to mind. Fellner’s version is worthy of comparison with these noteable antecedents.

Á la Gould , there are brisk, technically impressive, movements; the final gigue is particularly wonderful, balancing contrapuntal clarity with tour de force showmanship. However, unlike my cherished Gould LP, Fellner remembers that these pieces are meant to emulate and evoke dance music. He thus takes most of the movements at tempi which could be realistically executed by actual dancing humans. Thereby, his reading is elegant, often poignant; both the Sarabande and Loure are simply breathtaking.

For Bach-lovers, choosing among recordings can be like choosing between children – how can you, really, say that you like one best? But Fellner’s Bach has quickly joined my extended family of recordings in heavy rotation.

 Till Fellner


(I last wrote about Fellner for File Under ? in 2004. You can see that article here.)

In Principio

Arvo Pärt
In Principio
Estonian National Symphony; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor

ECM celebrates the Silver Anniversary of their New Series this year. Given that the recording which launched the imprint was Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, it seems especially fitting that the composer’s In Principio features prominently among its 2009 releases. Pärt’s compositional language has often focused on the barest, essentials, crafting an Eastern European version of minimalism based on bell-like sounds and sweeping ostinati. But he has extended his compositional reach during the past quarter century, as is amply attested by the recent works presented on this disc.

The title composition, scored for chorus and orchestra, is particularly intriguing. It is among the most dramatically gestural pieces from the composer since his Berlin Mass and Te Deum. Shades of Adams and Glass surface here and there in its vivid orchestration, but In Principio also calls to mind the sumptuous verticals in Bruckner’s motets and the boldness of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Mein Weg re-imagines an organ work from the 1980s as a fresh-faced minimalist tone-poem for chamber orchestra. More gradual in its evolution processes, but no less lovely, is La Sindone, a haunting, string swept meditation on the shroud of Turin. Für Lennart in Memoriam also places its emphasis on string textures, with a plaintive violin melody that serves as a supple valediction.

Perhaps the disc’s most memorable performance is the choral work Da Pacem Domine; it recalls the soberness of Bach’s Lenten chorales and the austerity of chant from the Orthodox liturgy, all over a glacially shifting ground bass; a memorably poignant plea for peace. Here, as throughout, Tõnu Kaljuste leads with skill and tremendous sympathy for Pärt’s work.           In Principio

Enrico Rava ““ Italian jazz trumpeter matches lyricism and adventure on forthcoming ECM CD

Enrico Rava

New York Days


Enrico Rava - New York Days

Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava appears in a quintet setting on New York Days, his latest CD for the ECM imprint (slated for release 29 Jan. ’09). Joined by pianist Stefano Bollani, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Paul Motian, Rava presents nine originals, as well as a couple of improvisations credited to the group. On “Lulù,” one hears how well-matched Turner and Rava are; both begin their solos with an ambling, unhurried character. Rava eventually moves up to the stratosphere in nimble runs, while Turner counters with his own syncopated and undulating traversal to the altissimo register. The two craft an interlocking misterioso duet on the evocatively titled “Count Dracula.”

Bollani is a wonderfully talented pianist, and his gifts for ballad playing are amply demonstrated on the lovely tune “Lady Orlando;” his comping is elegant and his soloing spacious. Also impressive here are the supple overlaps between trumpet and saxophone. The rhythm sections shines on the undulating, dancing “Luna Urbana.” Although there is a strong tendency towards the lyrical on New York Days, this does nothing to blunt its sense of adventure or omnipresent swing. Rava and company give us something to look forward to in 2009.