WUORINEN: Ashberyana; Praegustatum; Fenton Songs I and II; Ave Christe (Josquin); Josquiniana. Sarah Rothenberg, Alan Feinberg, piano; Leon Williams, baritone; James Pugh, trb; Mark Steinberg, David Fulmer, vln; Misha Amory, vla; Nina Maria Lee, vcl; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Brentano String Quartet; Charles Wuorinen, conductor. Naxos 8.559377. 61 minutes.
Charles Wuorinen’s rhetorical bark has always been sharper, edgier, than his musical bark. Many of his verbal excesses about the primacy of 12-tone technique and the death of tonality have proven less than prophetic.
In fact, Wuorinen’s own musical development has belied his bellicose statements. Much of his music expresses a direct, modern lyrical impulse. He has a good ear for instrumental color and line. The biggest problem I’ve had with Wuorinen’s music in the past is that I’ve often found his rhythmic style in conflict with his pitch vocabulary””the rhythms feel much more tonal than the harmonies and melodies would seem to suggest.
The accompanied trombone solo that begins the first piece on this Naxos disc, Ashberyana, (written in 2004 for baritone, trombone, string quartet, and piano, on poems of John Ashbery) reveals a composer whose style has resolved the tensions within his musical personality. Or a critic who is hearing better. At any rate, the trombone’s lyrical line (played with style and power by James Pugh), with its fleeting but unmistakable tonal references, is accompanied by sharp, dissonant chords on the piano.
Wuorinen’s text setting is clear, though the vocal line is often more angular than the trombone line, but this is appropriate for Ashbery’s poetry, with its ellipitical imagery and complex structure. Baritone Leon Williams gives a strong performance of the difficult vocal part, and the composer leads Da Camera of Houston in a solid, authoritative performance.
The rest of the program, consisting of a solo piano work (very well played by Sarah Rothenberg), two brief song cycles on poetry by James Fenton (sung with intense conviction by Lucy Shelton), and some Josquin arrangements, is solid and musical. Naxos’ sound is very good, and Sarah Rothenberg’s notes are informative.
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HEGGIE: For a Look or a Touch; SCHWARZ: In Memoriam; LAITMAN: The Seed of Dream. Morgan Smith, Erich Parce, baritone; Julian Patrick, actor; Julian Schwarz, cello, Mina Miller, piano; Music of Remembrance. Naxos 8.559379. 61 minutes.
Music of Remembrance is a Seattle-based ensemble/organization dedication to the creation (through commissions), performance, and dissemination of music whose subject is the Holocaust, especially victims of the Holocaust who were musicians.
This Naxos disc includes first recordings of three memorial pieces, two of which (are Lori Laitman’s The Seed of Dream and Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch) are Music of Remembrance commissions. The Seed of Dream, for baritone, cello, and piano, is a setting of poems by Vilna Ghetto survivor Abraham Sutzkever. The mood is, naturally, dark, but there are often rays of light and hope in Laitman’s direct and lyrical music. Erich Parce sings the vocal line in a rich baritone voice. Cellist Julian Schwarz and Music of Remembrance Artistic Director Mina Miller (piano) provide solid and poetic accompaniment.
Gerard Schwarz’ In Memoriam is a very straight-forward lament. His experience as a conductor (he is currently Music Director of the Seattle Symphony) shows in how well he writes for string instruments. The piece is in three clearly laid out sections, and is ably played by Julian Schwarz and member of Music of Remembrance.
The revelation of the disc, for me anyway, is Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch. Heggie is best known as a composer of opera (Dead Man Walking) and this piece, though not an opera, shows its composer as an artist who knows his way around narrative and drama. For a Look or a Touch (libretto by Gene Scheer) is a story of a Holocaust survivor and his struggle to remember his lover, who died at Auschwitz. It is a romantic and harrowing work, one of the first to deal directly with the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis. Heggie’s music is eclectic, with touches of romantic jazz along side passages that explore the darker aspects of the story without ever wallowing in bathos. Morgan Smith ably sings the role of survivor Gad, while the role of his doomed lover, Manfred is read by Julian Patrick. The device works, and the piece is very moving. Members of the Music of Remembrance ensemble play Heggie’s music with skill and conviction.
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McCARTNEY: Ecce Cor Meum. Kate Royal, soprano. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Gavin Greenaway. EMI DVD 5099950073399. 67 minutes.
It probably counts as a truism to say that Paul McCartney is one of the finest melodists popular music has produced. Popular music is often largely about melody, with the other parameters of the art usually playing a secondary rí´le.
The melodies in McCartney’s hour-long Ecce Cor Meum (“Behold My Heart”, for soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra; text by the composer) are not nearly as memorable as those in his best songs. It seems as though he had a preconceived notion about what “classical” melodies should sound like and how they should be shaped. He wrote accordingly, and the result is somewhat forced and artificial.
As to the other niceties of “classical” composition, McCartney falls back on the standard tools of the inexperienced composer””pedals, sequences, and ostinatos. In this way his melodies are given the means to play out into a lengthy composition. The harmony, rhythm, and orchestration of the piece are pretty standard late 20th-century neo-tonal, with a hint of English pastoralism.
At the beginning of the film, before the performance begins, the composer enters the Royal Albert Hall and is greeted like, well, a rock star. (I wonder if he gets as tired of that happening at his concerts as I do at mine.)
Soprano Kate Royal has a fine, full voice and a winning stage presence. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra, led by Gavin Greenaway, does its usual bang up job, as do the massed choruses involved. A brief documentary on the creation of Ecce Cor Meum, in which the composer discusses his limitations as a composer (as opposed to a songwriter), dramatically illustrates just how well one can get by with a little help from their friends.
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GOLDSTEIN: Configurations in Darkness; Ishi/timechangingspaces; Ishi/”man waxati” Soundings. Malcolm Goldstein, solo violin; Radu Malfatti, trombone; Philippe Micol, bass clarinet; Philippe Racine, flute; Beat Schneider, violoncello. New World 80676. 69 minutes.
Malcolm Goldstein’s experience as an extraordinary violinist/improviser (or is that “improvising violinist”?) informs every moment of his a sounding of sources disc on New World Records. His playing and composing is vital, visionary, and eminently listenable.
The first piece on the disc is Configurations in Darkness. The first two tracks comprise two performance of this score, part of which is included in the accompanying booklet. The score provides pitch materials and time frames for activities, and the resulting controlled improvisation is a teeming soundworld full of folk references, modernist dissonance, and free-floating expression. Goldstein’s collaborators (Radu Malfatti, trombone, Philippe Micol, bass clarinet, Philippe Racine, flute, and Beat Schneider, cello) are fine musicians, attuned to improvisation and to Goldstein’s musical world.
Ishi/timechangingspaces is an electronic sound collage produced for West German Radio and realized in their Cologne studio. Like many of the classical electronic pieces made in that studio, Goldstein’s piece uses found sounds (here including singing from the last member of the Yahi tribe) to create an expressive soundscape that compels us to listen.
The final work on this disc, Ishi/”man waxati” Soundings, is a reworking of Ishi/timechangingspaces into a controlled improvisation, played by Goldstein himself, with vocal interjections as well as violin sounds. It is a fascinating and expressive rethinking of the electronic work.
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LEí“N: Bailarín; Singin’ Sepia; Axon; Arenas d’un Tiempo; Satiné; Horizons. David Starobin, guitar; Tony Arnold, soprano; Continuum; Mari Kimura, violin; Speculum Musicae; Quattro Mani; NDR Sinfonie Orchester/Peter Ruzicka. Bridge 9231. 56 minutes.
Tania Leí³n writes music in a lyrically Modernist vein. Her music is colorful and virtuosic, but the virtuosity is filtered through the composer’s strong sense of “play”, the kind of “serious lightness” that informs much recent Modernist art. This sampler of Leí³n’s solo, vocal, chamber, and orchestral music from Bridge Records begins with guitarist David Starobin’s winning performance of Bailarín. The composer’s Cuban background is evident in the piece, but not in a heavy-handed or clichéd way. Bailarín is lithe, attractive, and idiomatically written.
There is virtually complete expressive identification between music and poetry (by Rita Dove) in Singin’ Sepia, a cycle of songs on slavery and its diasporic effect. The music, for soprano, clarinet, violin, and piano/four-hands, is, by turns, joyous and reflective. Tony Arnold’s performance is rich and intimate.
Axon is a remarkable piece for violin and interactive computer. Both instruments “dance” and sing. The material is spiky and rhythmically alive (those adjectives can be applied to all of the composer’s music). Mari Kimura is a talented violinist. She gives a fine performance of this difficult piece.
The program closes with three instrumental works (Arenas d’un Tiempo, for clarinet, cello, and piano, Satiné, for two pianos, and Horizons, for orchestra) that show off the composer’s stylistic interests, especially rhythmic invention, and expressive skills. The performances here, and on the disc as a whole are first-rate. I’ve heard Tania Leí³n’s name many times, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to heard of her music. I hope to hear much more of it, and soon.
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EARNEST: Winter Dances; The Blue Estuaries; Trois Morceaux. Judith Kellock, soprano; Mariam Adam, clarinet; Peter Sanders, cello; Evelyn Ulex, piano; Hrabba Atladottir, violin; Ensemble X/Sebastian Gottschalk. Koch 7555. 53 minutes.
John David Earnest has devoted most of his long compositional career to music for orchestra, song cycles, and choral music. The current disc contains about half of his chamber music. The music here is accessible, but not without some harmonic and (especially) rhythmic bite.
All of this music is exceptionally well-written. The instruments sound great””in fact, the music is probably easier to play than it sounds, and performers love that. The forms are simple, direct, and clearly-articulated. In fact, Earnest’s skill as a composer raises the craft itself to an expressive element of the music. It’s a case where the technique so identifies with the content that quality of the work translates into expression. Earnest’s harmony is tonal, but not diatonic, and his rhythmic style is flexibly pulse-y, with shifting accents and changing meters.
The performances are very good, with the players responding to their parts with style and skill. Soprano Judith Kellock delivers the vocal part in The Blue Estuaries in a rich, full soprano voice and with solid diction and a good sense of phrase. Koch’s production is very clean, with good balance.
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WHEELER: The Construction of Boston. William Hite, Charles Blandy, tenor; Krista River, mezzo-soprano; Marcus DeLoach, Christí²pheren Nomura, baritone; Christine Swistro, Sharla Nafziger, soprano; Elizabeth Anker, contralto; Chorus & Orchestra of The Boston Cecilia/ Donald Teeters. Naxos 8.669018. 60 minutes.
Scott Wheeler’s The Construction of Boston (libretto by Kenneth Koch; 1989, r. 2002) is a delightful one-act allegory on, well, the building of the city of Boston. As is the case with many recent American operas, it is stylistically eclectic, but there is no feeling of pastiche, and the composer’s musical personality is evident throughout.
The music is accessible, edgily tonal most of the time, with a feeling of Bernstein-style Broadway in some of the choruses. The vocal writing is idiomatic and the words come through very clearly. Wheeler’s rhythmic style is beat-oriented but also free and striking. His orchestration is inventive””bright and arresting.
The vocal performances are solid to excellent, with standout performances by tenor William Hite (as “The Opera” and Jean Tinguely), soprano Sharla Nafziger (as Niki de St Phalle), and baritone Christí²pheren Nomura (as Robert Rauschenberg; I told you it was an allegory). The chorus and orchestra of The Boston Cecilia, led by Donald Teeters, give very good accountings of themselves. The sound in this concert performance is very good. Everything is audible and the balance is as good as you would find in a studio recording.
All in all, a very pleasant way to spend an hour.
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CHOPIN: Barcarolle, Op. 60; Mazurkas; SIVAN/BELLINI: Concert Paraphrase on “Tutto í¨ giola” from La Sonnambula; SIVAN: Improvisations on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”; SCARLATTI: Sonatas; BACH: Presto; BACH-BUSONI: In dir ist Freude; BRAHMS-BUSONI: Herzlich tut mich erfreun; BEETHOVEN: Bagatelle, Op. 126, No.4; MOZART: Eine Kleine Gigue, K. 574; CHABRIER: Joyeuse Marche; PERSICHETTI: “Make Me Drunken With Deep Red Torrents of Joy”, from Poems, Vol. II; DAVICO: “”¦en écoutant la joyeuse pluie de mars”¦” from Impressions d’Intérieur; DEBUSSY: L’isle joyeuse. Yael Weiss, piano. KOCH 7651. 71 minutes.
Pianist Yael Weiss’ disc is called 88 Keys to Joy, because, as you can probably tell by the selections, all of the music takes “joy” as a theme. Her playing has depth, even within the relatively narrow expressive range given here, and her technique is impeccable.
Among the newer pieces, Vincent Persichetti’s “Make Me Drunken With Deep Red Torrents of Joy” stands out, with its delicate figurations and sometimes surprising harmonic and melodic turns. Ms. Weiss’ reading of Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse is light on its feet and idiomatically atmospheric.
This fine disc is another example of the kind innovative, thematic programming that I hope to continue to see in concerts and on recordings.
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BRYARS: And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world; Pí„RT: The Beatitudes; LOMON: “Transport”, from Testimony of Witnesses; DUCKWORTH: Selections from Southern Harmony; WALKER: Selections from The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Boston Secession/Jane Ring Frank. Brave 720. 52 minutes.
The house of minimalism has many mansions. In fact, minimalism itself moved out (probably in order to sublet) around the time of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a piece whose relatively spritely harmonic rhythm (the pace at which the chords change) indicates a break with “pure” minimalism. Since then, the label of “minimalist” has been accepted and rejected by composers of a wide range of musical attitudes and attributes.
The music on Surprised by Beauty: Minimalism in Choral Music shows that the choral and instrumental group Boston Secession takes a broad view of minimalism. The common characteristic among the pieces is a certain level of simplicity on the surface and a commitment to tonality in one form or another.
Gavin Bryars’ And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is a meditative setting of a brief prose description of the last, minor occurrence in the philosopher’s life. The text is from Thomas de Quincey’s biography, and Bryars sets it in straightforward speech rhythms, with no counterpoint and only occasional harmony. The expressive power in the piece comes from Bryars’ use of melodic dissonances, which usually consist in lowering scale degrees and lengthening the syllable. And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world is an almost perfect match of subject/text and technique.
Arvo Pí¤rt’s Beatitudes is even more austere than the Bryars, in some ways. It is scored for chorus and organ, and the organ supplies volume, counterpoint, and drama. On the other hand, the text is given a ritualistic setting, letting the words speak for themselves free of expressive ornament. The result is a piece both lean and haunting.
Ruth Lomon’s Testimony of Witnesses is an evening-long oratorio based on poetry by victims of the Holocaust. The “Transport” section is a setting of short verses about the trains that carried people to the concentration camps. Lomon uses the considerable resources of the Boston Secession instrumental contingent (Testimony of Witnesses was written for them) to paint a harrowing sound picture of these events. The music is tonal and directly expressive. It’s powerful and deeply moving.
The program proper concludes with selections from William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony, a reworking of hymn-tunes from William Walker’s 1835 The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Duckworth is one of the founders of post-minimalism, which employs minimalist techniques (repetition of notes, motives, or phrases and clear, usually relatively fast pulsation) along with techniques from both more traditional and more Modernist techniques. Walker’s original hymn-tunes provide excellent grist for Duckworth’s mill. The result is an exultant updating and deepening of music that already was part of America’s artistic DNA when Duckworth got hold of it. The disc closes with “bonus tracks”, lively readings of some of Walker’s hymn-tunes that Duckworth used as source material.
The performances, led by Boston Secession Artistic Director Jane Ring Frank, are uniformly outstanding and sound very good””you can hear everything. Highly recommended for those interested in recent trends in choral writing and performing.
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STRAVINSKY: Piano Music. Victor Sangiorgio. Naxos 8.570377. 72 minutes.
Victor Sangiorgio’s traversal of Igor Stravinsky’s music for piano solo is engaging on several levels, not the least of which is how the early compositions show the composer struggling to find a voice.
The Sonata in f-sharp minor (1903-04) finds Stravinsky trying (and truth be told, pretty much failing) to stretch his materials out into traditional Sonata length and form. There is a wealth of attractive thematic material in the Sonata, but the form is ill-suited for them.
Much more characteristic and successful are his 1924 Sonata and 1926 Serenade. These well-known pieces, both of which are excellent exemplars of the composer in his neoclassical mode, are given energetic and idiomatic readings by Mr. Sangiorgio. To my ears the best performance on the disc is of the Four Etudes (Op. 7, 1908), where the composer is well on his way to finding himself.
The program is rounded out with the composer’s riffs on more-or-less popular music””Piano-Rag-Music (1919), Tango (1940), and Circus Polka (1941-42). While not all of this music shows Stravinsky at his best or most characteristic, it’s good to have performances of this quality all in one place.
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