COHEN: Variously Blue; Sea of Reeds; Yedid Nefesh; Grneta Variations. Grneta Ensemble; Jennifer Choi, violin; Maria Lambros, viola. Navona NV5979. 70 minutes.
Gerald Cohen Writes pleasantly engaging music for clarinets, either in featured roles or as equal partners in chamber settings. Sea of Reeds, a collection of chamber compositions for clarinet(s). piano, and (usually) a string instrument, shows the instruments and players off to good effect.
Cohen’s music is eclectic, but it wears that eclecticism lightly–his individual voice always comes through. The influences includes jazz, blues (of the twelve-bar variety), klezmer music, and mainstream American Modernism, with expanded tonal resources, open harmonies, and syncopated rhythms. The pieces are well-written and clearly constructed.
The playing, by the Grneta Ensemble (clarinetists Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski and pianist Alexandra Joan) with violinist Jennifer Choi and violist Maria Lambros, is outstanding–one of the virtues of Cohen’s music is how well the instruments sound and how flattering it is to the players. Navona’s recorded sound is lucid and warm.
Most listeners will find something to like here, and more than a few clarinetists will find something they will want to play.
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STREICH: Dramatische Studie Nr. 3; ABLINGER: Augmented Study; JANULYTE: Psalms; FREY: A Memory of Perfection; Distant Colors; wen III; JENEY: Százéves átlag; BABBITT: Composition for Twelve Instruments; Arrivals and Departures; CLEMENTI: Second Violin Concerto; OTTO: Violin Duo; DAVIS: slip; CARLSON: Second string octet; MAKAN: mu; MAŽULIS: The Sleep; WILCOX: Two Violins. Erik Carlson, violin, various artists. http://erikcarlson.bandcamp.com/ 153 minutes.
Erik Carlson is a New York based violinist and composer, a member of ICE and the Talea Ensemble, among many others. He is a fine player, possessed of excellent technique, impeccable intonation (a must in the kind of music he plays here), and a keen ear for the range of sounds that can be made on a violin.
Some of Mr. Carlson’s central concerns, as both composer and performer, come through in his Second Octet. This very brief (less than three minutes) long-tone piece moves easily from harmonic clarity to harmonic crunch, with an incredibly present, physical sound.
The rest of this generous, always rewarding set is made of pieces that range from the high concept process pieces of Stefan Streich and Peter Ablinger through the expressive elegance of Milton Babbitt’s Composition for Twelve Players, in the best recording I’ve heard.
All of the pieces can be streamed from the website listed above, they can be purchased individually or as an album. Highly recommended.
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DETRICK: The Bright and Rushing World. AnyWhen Ensemble. Navona NV5955. 63 minutes.
Composer/trumpeter Douglas Detrick’s The Bright and Rushing World (2012) is a ten-movement piece of chamber jazz in which a single theme recurs throughout the work. The theme itself (stated at the outset by Mr. Detrick’s trumpet) is straightforward and memorable, with enough twists, turns, and ambiguities (both rhythmic and in harmonic implication) to sustain the piece for over an hour.
The Bright and Rushing World is a brooding piece, full of introspection–the overall title and the movement titles come from a poem about identity and release that Detrick wrote at the end of composing. The unique instrumentation of the AnyWhen ensemble (the composer’s trumpet, Hashem Assadullahi on saxophone, Shirley Hunt, cello, Steve Vacchi, bassoon, and Ryan Biesack, percussion) lends itself to that introspective vibe. Detrick mentions a few influences, including Ellington and Britten, in his notes, but what hear more than these is the Miles Davis of Birth of the Cool in sound and harmony, and that’s very high praise.
The playing here is really outstanding–technically and expressively. Highly recommended to a wide range of listeners, including jazz fans, chamber music buffs, and those seeking common ground between genres and audiences.
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HEATHCO: ravens & radishes. Misha Penton, soprano; George Heathco, electric guitar; Daniel Saenz, cello. Divergence Vocal Theatre DVT 002; georgeheathco.com; 25 minutes.
ravens & radishes (2013) is an “operatic fairytale song cycle” for soprano, electric guitar, and cello. The lyrics, by soprano Misha Penton, embody elusive retellings of tales from Grimm and a Slavic tale. They are well-matched with Heathco’s music, which has an easy eclecticism that reminds me of chamber rock with shifting textures and metric/rhythmic freedom. The songs work on their own and as part of the cycle.
Misha Penton, in addition to having a way with words, is a fine singer, with a darkly inviting voice, a sure sense of pitch, and outstanding diction. Mr. Heathco is a solid guitarist, coaxing a wide variety of sounds and textures from his instrument, which blends and contrasts in sometimes surprising ways with Daniel Saenz’ superb cello playing.
ravens & radishes is very well-written, recorded, and performed. A good example of the form and style.
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SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.
In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.
Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.
Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.
Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.
The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.
The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.
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FUNG: Keeping Time; HIGDON: Secret and Glass Gardens; HOOVER: Dream Dances; LUO: Mosquito; SHATIN: Chai Variations; De KENESSEY: Spontaneous D-Combustion; DEUSSEN: A Recollection. Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano. innova 868. 69 minutes.
Headline: Mary Kathleen Ernst, who I admit I had not heard of before I got this recording, is a spectacularly gifted pianist. She plays with assured technique, a vast timbral palette, and a keen sensitivity to the variety of contemporary compositional styles. The current program, of recent music by female composers, is far more than showcase for Ms Ernst, but it is that, too.
The program opens with Vivian Fung’s sly look at Keeping Time. Ms Fung uses time-keeping (an obsession in much contemporary American concert music) for melodic and gestural musings, with the clock’s insistence always present. The melodies in Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens begin as quietly purposeful wanderings that gradually blossom into large gestures covering the entire range of the keyboard.
Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances begins with mysterious, impressionistic gestures (very idiomatic, pianistic) that are indeed dream-like in their ambiguity. The piece gradually, almost imperceptibly, develops into a driving, frenetic dance that abruptly, and convincingly, stops. Mosquito, by Jing Jing Luo, is a flighty beast indeed. Scurrying here, lighting there, it is a consistently delightful piece, well-written and expressive.
Chai Variations, by Judith Shatin, is a set of 18 variations on a Hebrew folk song. Shatin takes an effectively old-fashioned approach to variation form(s)–now Brahmsian, now Rzewskian–the theme is almost always clear in the background, if not the foreground. A shapely, convincing set.
Stefania De Kenessey’s Spontaneous D-Combustion is full of references to past styles. It is jaunty and eminently listenable. The program closes with Nancy Deussen’s attractive and haunting A Recollection. As the piece moves along, the nature of the “recollections” gets more-and-more elusive. It makes a fine end to a very good program, well-chosen and very well-played by Ms Ernst.
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BATES: Stereo is King; Observer in the Magellanic Cloud; Difficult Bamboo; Terrycloth Troposphere; String Band; White Lies for Lomax. Cynthia Yeh, Jacob Nissly, Eric Banks, perc; Mason Bates, electronica; Chanticleer; Baird Dodge, vln; Ken Olsen, cello; Jennifer Gunn, fl; Susan Warner, cl; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; Cliff Colnot, cond; Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble; Claremont Trio; Tania Stavreva, piano. innova 882. 66 minutes
I have to say right up front that I find that, even having listened to a fair amount of it, I cannot engage with most of what I’ve heard of Mason Bates’ music. With an important exception, the pieces on this release, well-written and played and sung impeccably and enthusiastically by renowned performers, don’t speak to me. I agree with Joshua Kosman, who writes “[f]or sheer compulsive listenability, you could hardly do better than the title track, a bowlful of sonic popcorn that combines Thai gongs with a sleek veneer of electronic processing.” In fact, these very aspects of it are an important part of what is off-putting about this music. But for some reason it doesn’t speak to me. So I don’t have much to say about the disc, except to repeat that it is very well-written, played, sung, and recorded.
Except for String Band, an expressive and riveting piece of music, given a powerful performance by the Claremont Trio. String Band wears its influences lightly and feels less wedded to its musical influences than are the rest of the pieces on the program. The sleekness that Mr. Kosman finds so enthralling in Stereo is King is missing here, and the expression is, at least to my ear, more direct, somehow less mediated than in the pieces I’ve heard from Mr. Bates, and from others in his compositional cohort.
The fact that the other pieces just don’t do it for me says as much about me as it does about the music, if not more. But my experience with String Band gives me hope, and that’s always very good.
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BECKER: Gridlock; Five Reinventions; Fade; Keeping Time; A Dream of Waking. Common Sense Ensemble/Bradley Lubman; New Millennium Ensemble. innova 855. 53 minutes.
Dan Becker’s brand of post-minimalism is brightly colorful and rhythmically incisive. And it sounds as if it would be great fun to play. While the music is built on steady, clear pulses, Becker rarely resorts to a backbeat. His percussion writing, rather, is built on irregular accents and colorful blasts of sound. His writing for winds and strings is equally idiomatic; again, it sounds like it would be great fun to play.
The music on this disc that speaks most directly to me is contained in the slow sections of pieces like Fade and Keeping Time (Mvt. 1). Here, Becker uses pop-oriented harmonies and progressions, but with an irregular harmonic rhythm, supporting expressive melodies colorfully orchestrated.
The performances are top notch. The players love this music and it shows. The Bachian Reinventions are played by a Discklavier, which seems indifferent compared to the human players–the notes are there, but still.
Innova’s sound is very good, and John Halle’s notes are gushily informative.
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IVES: Songs. Various Artists. Volume 1: “123” through “Cradle Song”. Naxos 8.559269. 75 minutes. Volume 2: “December” through “Gruss”. Naxos 8.559270. 68 minutes. Volume 3: “Harpalus” through “Luck and Work”. Naxos 8.559271. 76 minutes. Volume 4: “Majority” through “Over the Treetops”. Naxos 8.559272. 73 minutes. Volume 5: “Paracelsus” through “Swimmers”. Naxos 8.559273. 80 minutes. Volume 6: “Tarrant Moss” through “Yellow Leaves”. Naxos 8.559274. 66 minutes.
Charles Ives completed nearly 200 songs between 1887 and 1926, spanning the entirety of his composing life. All of his aesthetic, musical, poetic, philosophical, and political concerns are addressed, one way or another, in one style or another. All of the completed songs are included in Naxos’ six volumes, which are organized according to song titles, in alphabetical order. This arrangement seems extremely counter-intuitive, but it turns out to be really inspired, as it allows a listener to get a picture of the range of Ives’ work in the form, without having to purchase the entire set.
Like every collection of this size and this variety, every listener will have favorites and every listener will find revelations. Many of the songs are well-known, such as “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” (Volume 2, David Pittsinger, bass, and Douglas Dickson, piano), “Majority” (Volume 4, Robert Gardner, baritone, and Eric Trudel, piano), “The Cage” (Volume 1, Gardner and J. J. Penna, piano) and “The Greatest Man” (Michael Cavalieri, baritone, and Dickson).
An example of a revelation is “Ich Grolle Nacht” (Volume 3, Gardner and Penna). This is an early (1898) song on a text by Heinrich Heine. This song and others from the same time frame show a fully mature composer with a solid grasp on the late Romantic style of the day. The touching lyricism that characterizes this song emerges throughout Ives’ career, as in the deconstruction of the hymn “At the River” (Volume 1, Sara Jakubiak, soprano, and Dickson).
Ives’ stentorian mode comes into play in such political/patriotic songs as “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” (Volume 3, Gardner and Trudel) and “Walt Whitman” (Volume 6, Ryan MacPherson, tenor, and Trudel), which are also portraits of their subjects in the manner of the composer’s “Concord” Sonata. Patriotic fervor also brings out Ives at his most gloriously impractical, as in the 42-second song for voice and three pianos “Vote for Names! Names! Names!” (Volume 6, MacPherson and pianists Laura Garritson, Dickson, and Trudel).
Every disc is replete with the special pleasures of Ives’ art. Hymn-tunes, patriotic songs, and chaos abound. Anyone wishing to stick a toe in this repertoire would do well to get any one of the volumes.
The performances throughout the collection, featuring about two dozen singers, a number of pianists and assorted instrumentalists, are ardent, committed, and expressive, if not quite as polished as those of Susan Narucki and Donald Berman. Naxos’ production is solid, and Richard Whitehouse’s notes are well-written and richly informative.
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IVES: Selected Songs. Susan Narucki, sop., Donald Berman, piano. New World 80680. 57 minutes.
If Charles Ives’ piano music can be heard as expressing his philosophical ideas about living in America, and I believe that it that is certainly one way to hear that music, his songs (there are over 200 of them) can be heard as embodying his more day-to-day, closer to the ground observations about America, its place in the world, and American life.
This selection of songs is as good an introduction to the composer’s work in this medium as I have heard. Soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Donald Berman display a profound understanding of and identity with these songs. Ms Narucki’s voice is warm and powerful. She is a fine vocal actress, with a strong sense of rhythm and of poetry, and Mr. Berman is a sensitive and expressive accompanist.
Every listener will have his or her own favorites from the 27 songs given here, which were composed between 1897 and 1921. The program has a good mixture of some of Ives’ most famous songs, like “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”, “The Greatest Man”, and “The Things Our Fathers Loved”, along with some that are maybe a bit lesser known, like “Songs My Mother Taught Me” (an inspired opener), “Where the Eagle Cannot See”, and “Feldeinsamkeit”.
The informative notes (always a valuable part of a New World release) were written by the performers, and their perspective is helpful for close listening. The sound is close and intimate. This is an important disc both for Ives fans and those looking to explore this chronicler of America.
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