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IVES: Sonatas 1 and 2 (“Concord”). Jeremy Denk, piano; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute. Think Denk Media 2567. 74 minutes.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the first composer whose music gave a comprehensive sound-picture of life in America. This musical picture is of America during a certain time and in a particular place. This America was the New England of Ives’ youth, and later the New York of his adulthood. The music moves back and forth between overwhelming complexity and childlike simplicity, between grinding, aggressive dissonance and clear, hymnal-like harmony, and between tunes we’ve known all our lives and alien other-worldly abstraction, often with whiplash-inducing speed. It is probably inevitable that this musical embodiment of a diverse, almost contradictory nation is based on such striking dualities.

The most important of the dualities embodied in Ives’ music, though, is that of interior/ideational and exterior/experiential expression. (You could argue that all art is based on this dichotomy, but it is radically at the center of Ives’ aesthetic.) That is, Ives takes his memories and experiences and abstracts them into musical structures, while at the same time he often puts the external experience on the surface of the music in the form of quotations.

In Ives’ music for orchestra and for string quartet, this internal/external dichotomy is a function of community, where the layers of music can be heard as a picture of an event projected through the prism of artistic remembrance. Whether “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean” or “Turkey in the Straw” is heard in the foreground is a matter of perspective when they occur simultaneously in the musical texture.

In a piece for solo piano, it’s different. All of the various strands of music come from the same place, from the same fingers. The expressive tension that results from the external/internal dichotomy in Ives’ music is magnified exponentially. His two piano sonatas are monumental essays on American thought and experience.

Pianist Jeremy Denk is known in the musical blogosphere for his imaginative and informative writing. Reviews of his performances cite a powerful combination of intelligence and imagination in his playing. Given this, it’s not surprising that Denk chose for his debut recording Ives’ two piano sonatas. Throughout both of these pieces, Denk handles the shifts in mood and style, and the contrapuntal complexities of this music with apparent ease.

The First Sonata is a sprawling arch in five movements. Denk projects Ives’ architecture without sacrificing the often playful expressive elements, such as the raucous quotation of “Bringin’ in the Sheaves” near the end of the second movement. Denk’s performance makes a very strong case for this often-neglected work.

The First Sonata is neglected only because the Second Sonata (“Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”) is one of the most influential piano works of the 20th century, as well as one of the touchstones of American concert music. The Concord Sonata is one of Ives’ most difficult works, both in execution (which you would never know from Denk’s performance) and in musical substance, but since that difficulty is part and parcel of what the piece is about, it is immediately approachable as well.

The Concord Sonata’s four movements are character sketches of figures associated with American Transcendentalism—Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. The subject matter is a natural field for Ives’ one-foot-in-the-world-the-other-in-the-stars approach to music. It is clearly natural to Denk as well—this is the best, most convincing account of this work I have ever heard. His technique seems to know no bounds and his ability to shift gears without warning is a tremendous asset here. The violence in passages in both the Emerson and Hawthorne movements is more than matched by the tenderness is the lyrical episodes of “The Alcotts”.

Not surprisingly, Denk’s notes are a lively read, offering clues to what we will hear in the recording, and the sound is excellent. Denk is an extraordinary musician and a fine thinker. I have a list of pieces in my head that would love to hear him take on, but I think I’ll keep it to myself and just see where he goes next.

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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”[1] 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.


[1] Remember, “academic” is always a pejorative.

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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[1] 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.

Highly recommended.


[1] Not unlike Elliott Carter’s “time screen” in concept, but very different in practice.

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HerschHERSCH: 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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9310RAKOWSKI: 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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johncage8CAGE: 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-nonesuch-retrospective.jpgCARTER: 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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