LENTINI: Orchestra Hall Suite; El Signo del Angel; Five Pieces for Cello and Piano; East Coast Groove; Scenes from Sedona; Montage. Paul Ganson, bssn; Geoffrey Applegate, Harvey Thurmer,vln; James Van Valkenberg, Mary E. M. Harris, Cynthia Fogg, vla; Marcy Chanteaux, Pansy Chang, Tom Flaherty, vcl; Jaquelyn Davis, harp; Siok Lian Tan, Robert Conway, pft; Velvet Brown, tuba. Naxos 8.559626. 58 minutes.
What is “academic” music? For most people who think about the subject (and those tend to be composers), it’s the music that dominated the composition department at whatever school they attended, if they didn’t write that way themselves. Others see it as music studied in theory/analysis class. (How being chosen for analysis in a class or a studio makes the music itself “academic” is a little mysterious.)
As a long time observer and sometime participant in the college music scene, albeit outside the big music centers, it seems to me that there is a more meaningful and less charged way of looking at academic music. That is, academic music is music written for and played by faculty and students at music schools. That’s not meant to say that the music itself has limits that make it artistically unable to thrive outside the academy, rather that the market outside the academy is generally limited to certain kinds of ensembles. The composer of this kind of academic music writes for established types of ensembles (such as string quartets and piano trios) when they are available, but as often as not, they write for the idiosyncratic, ad hoc combinations available amongst colleagues and students.
In terms of style, this kind of academic music is neither uptown nor downtown, but it partakes of aspects of both. It is largely tonal, of the expanded variety, but is not afraid to partake of more astringent harmonies from time to time. It often shows a distinct influence of jazz and/or pop, both in melodic/harmonic materials and in rhythm. The originality in the music is most present in its orchestration, where instruments (bassoon and tuba, for example) are asked to carry roles they rarely have in orchestral music. The result (depending on the skill and vision of the composer) is appealing and accessible, without being cloying or patronizing.
James Lentini writes this kind of music, and he does it very well. He deftly combines unusual groups of instruments and makes the listener feel that there should be an entire repertoire for them. This is most immediately true (for me) in Orchestra Hall Suite, for bassoon, violin, viola, and cello. After hearing this expressive, well-made piece, one wonders why the “bassoon quartet” is not a staple of chamber music series.
Lentini, who is Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Miami University (Ohio), has a thorough understanding of instruments, how they work and how they work together. The unlikely duo of viola and harp sounds great in El Signo del Angel (The Sign of the Angel). East Coast Groove, for tuba and piano, sings and swings.
The performers, many of whom are Lentini’s colleagues at Miami, are outstanding executants of this fine music. Naxos, with this outstanding release, continues to be one of our most important record companies.
Remember, “academic” is always
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CRUMB: Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I); The Sleeper; Vox Balaenae; Five Pieces for Piano; Dream Sequence. Jamie Van Eyck, ms; International Contemporary Ensemble. Bridge 9261. 72 minutes.
This release of some of George Crumb’s early (mostly) mature works is Volume 12 of Bridge’s Complete Crumb Edition. Most Sequenza21 readers are undoubtedly familiar with Crumb’s style, which combines an expanded tonality sensibility, an extraordinarily sensitive ear for color (often expressed in a plethora of special instrumental effects), and a keen feeling for ritual to make directly expressive musical statements.
The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), joined by the talented mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck for The Sleeper, turn in outstanding performances. When Crumb doesn’t work for me, it tends to be because the performance falls into being a kind of catalog of special effects, but there’s no hint of that here. The effects are seamlessly integrated into the musical flow.
The big pieces here are Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I) (1966), Vox Balaenae (1971), and Dream Sequence (Images II), (1976). All of the characteristics of Crumb’s mature style listed above are in full flower in these works. Of special interest to me is the spectacularly assured reading given Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale, for amplified flute, amplified cello, and amplified piano), one of the composer’s signature pieces. The ICEers (Claire Chase, flute, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello, and Jacob Greenberg, piano) play this moving (and difficult) score as if they were born to it.
Bridge’s Crumb series continues to be an important tribute to an iconic American composer.
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FELDMAN: Clarinet and String Quartet; BABBITT: Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet. Mark Lieb, clarinet; Phoenix Ensemble. Innova 746. 63 minutes.
We spend a lot of time, energy, and words on the differences in art—what separates artists, what makes for different styles, what distinguishes one period from another, etc. Occasionally we are nudged into hearing these things in a different light by unusual juxtapositions of pieces in a concert program or on a recording.
It is tempting, easy in fact, to hear the music of Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt as irreconcilably opposed. Where Feldman is expansive, Babbitt compressed; where Babbitt bubbles, Feldman flows.
This disc, however, almost forces us to hear the common ground between these two totems of the mid-century style wars. The two pieces are wholly characteristic of the composers’ mature style, yet their common instrumentation (and their juxtaposition on the disc) highlighted their similarities. This is also due in part to the beautifully nuanced performances by clarinetist Mark Lieb and members of the Phoenix Ensemble.
Specifically, I am struck by the expressive/structural use of register in both pieces. Both Feldman and Babbitt use the return to and movement away from pitches fixed in a particular register as markers in the progress of the piece. I wonder if there’s been much analysis/research on the use of register in music of the second half of the twentieth-century, because it seems to me to be a uniting factor in an era known for adversarial diversity.
This is an outstanding recording. Highly recommended for fans of the genre and either or both composers.
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CARTER: Horn Concerto; Mad Regales; Tintinnabulation; Wind Rose; Sound Fields; On Conversing with Paradise; Retracing I, II, III; Clarinet Quintet; Figment III, IV, V; La Musique; Due Duetti; Poems of Louis Zukofsky. Martin Owen, horn; BBC Symphony/Oliver Knussen; BBC Singers; New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble/Frank Epstein; Leigh Melrose, baritone, Birmingham Conteporary Music Group/ Oliver Knussen; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; Charles Neidich, clarinet; Juilliard String Quartet; Simon Boyar, marimba; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Jon Nelson, trumpet; Rolf Schulte, violin; Fred Sherry, violoncello; Donald Palma, contrabass; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; William Purvis, horn. Bridge 9314 A/B [2CD]. 103 minutes.
Anyone who has read my blog or my reviews here knows that Elliott Carter’s music means a lot to me. I’ve learned so much from his music it would be hard to list everything. Most important, though, is that I love how it sounds and its expressive depth. I’m not surprised then, when people ask me what pieces would be a good introduction.
With this new set of pieces, most of which were written between 2007 and 2009, I have my answer. This album includes virtually every kind of piece Carter has composed during his long career as well as a few that venture into what are, for him, very new areas.
The Horn Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet are major instrumental works, the kinds of piece Carter is best known for. The Concerto (like most of Carter’s concertos for solo instruments) explores and extends several aspects of the expressive nature of the instrument, in this case the horn’s lyrical and majestic sides in a series of short episodes with shifting orchestral accompaniment. Martin Owen’s performance of the solo part is expressive and assured.
The Quintet has a different formal approach, though one that Carter has used in the past. The piece is one continuous stream of music (14 minutes long) that is divided into five clearly recognizable movements. The majority of the piece is lyrical nature, but the occasional outburst, usually from the strings, provides the dramatic contrast that animates most of Carter’s music. Carter regulars Charles Neidich and the Juilliard Quartet play this piece with style and understanding.
Carter wrote a good deal of choral and vocal music in the early part of his career. As he developed his characteristic style he concentrated on instrumental music until returning to the voice in earnest in the 1970s. This program includes a piece for unaccompanied voice, a cycle of songs for voice and clarinet, a cycle of songs for voice and small orchestra, and piece for a choir of six voices. These pieces are settings of texts by Modern poets of a variety of backgrounds. On Conversing with Paradise, is a setting of excerpts of some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and an excellent example of the composer’s dramatic settings, with its somewhat menacing percussion in contrast to the stark support of the strings and winds.
The three Figments and three Retracings are part of Carter’s tendency in recent years to write very short pieces for performance in solo recitals. The Retracings are reworkings of significant solo lines from larger compositions, like the trumpet solo that opens A Symphony of Three Orchestras, here given a vivid performance by Jon Nelson as Retracing III. In addition to providing solo instrumentalists with short, substantial pieces to play, these miniatures are demonstrations of the composer’s interest in and ability to write strong, if not exactly tuneful, melodies.
Due Duetti is a two-movement piece for violin and cello. In this performance by Carter veterans Rolf Schulte and Fred Sherry, Due Duetti comes across like a miniature (both in instrumentation and scale) version of one of Carter’s string quartets. The transparent texture and condensed scale are both characteristic of Carter’s recent music.
The revelations on this disc (as least for me) are three pieces for large, homogeneous ensembles, the first such pieces of his career. Tintinnabulation (percussion ensemble), Wind Rose (wind ensemble), and Sound Fields (string orchestra) are studies in color and texture. Tintinnabulation is restricted in its being made entirely of non-pitched percussion; its musical argument, then, is made almost entirely through changes of color. Wind Rose and Sound Fields make theirs through contrasts in thickness and subtle shifts in color. These pieces are reminiscent of middle period Morton Feldman in their insistence on finding musical expression in their limited resources.
Listeners with an interest in this composer will find something of value in this collection. The performances are outstanding and the sound is very good. Longtime Carter annotator Bayan Northcott’s notes are informative and insightful.
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PACCIONE: Rhapsody; Stations–To Morton Feldman; Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Page for Will; Three Motets: Arabesques; Five Songs from Christina Rossetti; “Postlude,” from Planxty Cage. Molly Paccione, cl; Jenny Perron, p; Michael Campbell, p; Western Illinois University Singers/James Stegall; Nurit Tilles, p; Terry Chasteen, tenor; Moisés Molina, vcl; Andrea Molina, p. New World 80706-2. 57 minues.
[DISCLAIMER: I’ve known Paul Paccione and his music for many, many years. The following may be read with this in mind.]
Paul Paccione’s music has always been concerned with the manipulation of musical space/time. That is, Paccione reconceives musical geometry (x=time, y-space) as a canvas on which musical objects are placed, like figures or brushstrokes in an abstract painting or drawing. These objects—chords and/or melodic gestures—retain their identity through repetition rather than development. Structure is projected through placement of objects at different coordinates on the musical canvas.
The result is a musical abstract expressionism that has developed over the years in surprising and gratifying ways. I first learned of Paccione and his music in the late ‘70s, when he was coming into his own as a disciple of Morton Feldman. His music at that time was quiet and sparse, with subtle melodic threads. His sense of color was (and is) so keen that a performance of his music gave a feeling of voluptuous austerity. In early pieces like Stations–To Morton Feldman (1987) the music is extremely spare—splashes of color on a blank temporal field, with a great deal of expressive silence.
In more recent years Paccione has embraced tonality, but his music still sounds like him. The Rhapsody for clarinet and piano (2005) is a good example. A lean piano part limns out a slow, non-dramatic chord progression in triplet eighth-note arpeggios while the clarinet plays lyrical melodic lines mostly above it. It’s as if the gentle triplets in the piano have replaced the blank canvas as a surface to be painted on.
The vocal or choral music Paccione composed early in his career was either wordless or was a setting of a short text that moved so slowly it may as well have been textless. In the pieces offered here, Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins (2007) and Five Songs from Christina Rossetti (2003), the non-dramatic but lyrical presentation of the texts serves as a vehicle for the composer’s characteristic tone explorations.
My favorite piece on this recording is the Three Motets: Arabesques (1999), for four prerecorded clarinets. These motets are simple—contrapuntal in the extreme, they are made of short, tonally-enigmatic melodic gestures that are imitated by subsequent instrumental entrances. The result is a haunting, subtly and constantly changing soundscape.
The performances and recording here are of the highest quality. Paccione teaches at Western Illinois University, and most of the performers are his colleagues there. Several pieces were written for clarinetist Molly Paccione, the composer’s wife, and her readings show deep understanding of the music.
Not unlike Elliott Carter’s “time screen” in concept, but very different in practice.
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HERSCH: Sonatas for Unaccompanied Cello 1 & 2. Daniel Gaisford, vcl. Vanguard Classics MCS-CD-104. 69 minutes.
I first became acquainted with Michael Hersch’s music through his monumental solo piano work The Vanishing Pavilions. The pieces recorded here adjust Hersch’s large and large-hearted soundworld to the somewhat more intimate and introverted genre of the unaccompanied sonata for cello.
The genre has a long and distinguished history, characterized by big works that show off the expressive range of the instrument (an the player) as well as the virtuosic possibilities almost inherent in solo string playing. Hersch is solidly in that tradition here, with pieces that probe the nature of cello playing in the context of the composer’s very personal post 20th-century neo-modernism. The music is characterized by meditative lyricism or mysticism, punctuated by aggressively angular and rhythmically biting phrases.
Daniel Gaisford plays these difficult (in every sense of the word) and supremely rewarding pieces with seemingly limitless technique and a musical personality as strong as Hersch’s. Their collaboration makes for an exciting and provocative musical experience.
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RAKOWSKI: Études. Amy Briggs, piano. Bridge 9310. 78 minutes.
This is the third volume in Bridge’s set of David Rakowski’s Études for piano. The present disc, brilliantly performed by Amy Briggs, includes selections from Book V as well as Books VI and VII in their entirety.
An étude (study) can explore many different subjects at once. It can be a technical exercise for the pianist, such as a fingering study, or an exercise for repeating notes, for example. For the composer these studies provide him or her with the challenge of making expressive musical sense out of the technical challenges the pieces present to the performer.
Rakowski, in his Études, has added stylistic exercise to this mix. Theses pieces are written in a dazzling array of compositional and performance styles. The titles (“Stutter Stab”, “Cell Division”, and “Killer B’s”, for example) give a hint of both the technical and stylistic/expressive problems addressed in each piece. The pop-sounding titles indirectly describe the sound of the music, which is “tonal” in the broadest sense of the word, with fugitive key centers banging up against each other.
Amy Briggs plays this difficult music with precision and style. She makes it sound easy, and it certainly isn’t. Her playing is expressive and colorful. I look forward to going back to the earlier discs in the series.
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CAGE: Sculptures Musicales; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Nine; Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Nine; Eighty. Christina Fong, violins, violas; Karen Krummel, cellos; Michael Crawford, basses; Glenn Freeman, percussion and bowed piano; Prague Winds; Chance Operations Collective of Kalamazoo. OgreOgress DVD 634479962141. 121 minutes.
The current disc is another in a remarkable series of first recordings of late works of John Cage on the OgreOgress label. For an introduction to the composer’s late style, see this review of an earlier disc in the series.
This disc is not going to win over anyone who is predisposed to disliking Cage’s music. The pieces (and their committed, perceptive realizations/performances) are uncompromising and direct expressions of the composer’s aesthetic. There’s a hushed tension in these pieces, manifest in noisy, quiet sounds (as in Sculptures Musicales) or in the fugitive unisons and pregnant silences of Eighty.
The combination of repertoire, performances, and great 96kHz|24bit sound make this release indispensable for Cage students and admirers, and highly recommended for the adventurous listener.
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CARTER: Selected Works. Various Artists. Nonesuch 510893-2 [4 cd]. 269 minutes.
This four disc set, titled “A Nonesuch Retrospective”, was released in honor of Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. It is an outstanding (and bargain-priced!) introduction to the composer, covering the majority of his work between the Piano Sonata (1945) to the Robert Lowell song cycle In Sleep, In Thunder (1983).
The music is arranged in chronological order on the four discs, so Carter’s development in these crucial years is audible. We almost never listen to concert music this way””in the order in which it was composed. We usually listen to groups of pieces by genre and/or instrumentation, and the unusual order is quite telling. At times, it feels like one large piece with different sections having different instrumentations.
An important and welcome addition is the inclusion of a titanic reading of the Variations for Orchestra (1955) by the Chicago Symphony, led by Carter champion James Levine, previously released by DG. Less welcome is the omission of the Paul Zukovsky/Gilbert Kalish premiere recording of the Duo for Violin and Piano (1974), which is one of Carter’s most personal compositions. (Does anyone know if that performance is available on CD?)
Most enthusiastic Carter fans will have most, if not all, of these recordings; highly recommended if you don’t.
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CARTER: Quartets 2, 3 and 4. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559363. 74 minutes.
The first disc (Naxos 8.559362) of the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of Elliott Carter’s string quartets consisted of compelling performances of the First (1951) and Fifth (1996) Quartets, the bookends of the composer’s essays in the medium (so far). The current disc completes the cycle in fine form, and the two discs together document Carter’s development both as a quartet composer and as a composer in general.
These “middle” quartets track the composer’s journey through the explorations of the 1950s, the extremities of complexity of the 70s, to the cusp of his late late style at the end of the 80s. The Second Quartet (1959) marks a big step in the development of Carter’s musical discourse, in which the instruments embody individual expressive characters, delineated by unique musical vocabularies. The result is, to my ear, a kind of music that leans heavily on gesture rather than on theme. In this strong and expansive performance, the players of the Pacifica give the gestures of this piece the weight they need for the work to communicate its expressive content.
The Third Quartet (1971) remains one of Carter’s most complex structures, so much so that even some fans of the composer find it merely “complicated”. I like the piece quite a bit, and the performance here is a revelation””the players bring out the lines in each duo more clearly than I’ve ever heard before. I think this reading of the Quartet will cause some to take a new listen to it.
The Fourth Quartet (1986) is the most traditional piece in the cycle, at least in terms of its structure. The by-now-standard-for-Carter partitioning of musical materials between instruments is at the service of a Beethoven four movement structure. At first hearing, this is a far less vital work than the other quartets, but it grows on you, and there is much of value in it. The reading it is given by the Pacifica is strong and expressive.
There is so much for interpreters of these works to explore that I would be hardpressed to call any reading them definitive, but you could do worse than start with the Pacifica Quartet recordings of Carter’s string quartets.
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