Archive for the “Bridge Records” Category
Portraits and Tributes
Scott Wheeler, composer
Donald Berman, piano
Boston composer Scott Wheeler is a prolific creator of large-scale compositions. However, his latest Bridge CD, Portraits and Tributes, reveals a different side of the composer: the author of occasional pieces. Twenty-seven pieces devoted to friends and family, anniversaries and birthdays, reveal Wheeler’s comfort in an array of styles, ranging from Copland-esque Americana to ragtime. The latter style plays an important role in this collection: Wheeler seems to love ragtime with an enthusiasm rarely heard since William Bolcom’s principal works were in wide circulation. I’m particularly fond of those pieces, such as “Bleeker Study,” that blend styles – it channels both Kurt Weill and early Arnold Schoenberg with equal skill. The gentle “Cowley Meditation” is also a nice contrast to the plethora of rags here.
Donald Berman is the fleet-fingered pianist who plays all of the works on the CD. Like Wheeler, he has chameleon like tendencies when it comes to interpreting various styles. Any collection of occasional pieces is bound to vary in quality to a certain degree, but Portraits and Tributes is surprisingly strong and, perhaps even more crucially, entertaining from beginning to end.
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Open Graves with Stuart Dempster
Prefecture Records, PREFECTURE004
The ominously lit photo on the cover of Flightpatterns – a recent release from Open Graves, a West Coast-based improvisation duo – depicts the uniquely overriding characteristic of the album: where it was recorded. Gas lamps and candles cast soft glows on a variety of percussion instruments resting inside an enormous abandoned water cistern in Port Towsend, Washington, the site where Open Graves’ Jesse Olsen and Paul Kikuchi teamed with renowned trombonist Stuart Dempster for this suspenseful and dark series of improvisations.
The album’s liner notes identify, “a wide range of traditional and invented instruments” and, “unusual acoustic environments”, as two of Open Graves’ strongest artistic pursuits. Yet, it seems the idea for using the cistern as a recording space may have come from their collaborator. Allaboutjazz.com’s Mark Corotto implies as much in his February 2011 review of Flightpatterns, noting that Dempster’s 1995 recording, Underground Overlays From The Cistern Chapel (New Albion), started a trend of site-specific improvisations, to which Flightpatterns may simply be the latest contributor. The sonic fingerprint the performance space lends the album’s four tracks is captivating and indelible, casting a translucence over the music as if we are looking at the sound through wax paper, or listening underwater. Again, Corotto speaks to this rather eloquently in his review, writing, “time must be slowed, giving a protracted feel to the performance. Dempster’s long drawn-out trombone notes act as a blanket…so lovely, that you might find yourself holding your breath.”
To me, the effect of the cistern’s reverberations on the music was twofold. The constant level of echo blurred the lines of musical phrases, much like how shadows projected on a distant cave wall distort an object’s original shape and identity. These resonant acoustic conditions produced music beautiful in a way I had never heard before. Everything sublimely bled together, softened out by the airspace inside the cistern. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s instruments melded together, moving as one amorphous musical body through time, shaded multifariously as the album went along by a constant variety of percussion sounds.
Unfortunately, I felt the obvious intransigence of the cistern’s acoustic undermined much of Flightpatterns’s wonder and beauty. Around three-quarters of the way through the disc my ears were plane tired of the ambience. At its worst, I was reminded of my first forays in electronic music where I sheepishly swathed all my musical layers with the same EQ or reverb, denying the individuality of my components to speak through this acoustic surface. I was pained as Flightpatterns wrapped up because I knew Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s virtuosity and musical sensibility are absolutely admirable, but had been largely washed out by the unwavering sonic environment of the recording.
Despite this qualm, I highly recommend the disc to all lover’s of improvised music and supporters of unconventional music presentation. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster have hit on an interesting thread in the world of contemporary music with Flightpatterns, even if they just hit a double instead of a grand slam. I’m talking about site-specific performances and other musical-environmental integrations. Again, I’m drawn to the world of electronic music where Roger Reynolds, for example, tediously designs spatial elements into his electro-acoustic scores and has been involved in many site-specific performances including a November 2010 event at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Michael Gordon’s smash multimedia orchestral work, Decaysia, and the recent series of New York Philharmonic concerts at the Park Avenue Armory also illustrate the grandeur certain kinds of physical space can lend a live performance of contemporary music.
Flightpatterns demonstrates the potential value of designing albums around special acoustic environments. Immediately, the album’s intrigue and surface appeal blossoms in light of of Open Graves’ imaginative use of the empty water cistern as a recording studio. Despite the evident danger of casting the music in a monochromatic reverb throughout the length of the disc, Flightpatterns is a bold exploration of physical and musical resonance. Alluring and chilling at once, the CD’s tracks will undoubtedly leave you with aural goosebumps as the blurred identities of Stuart Demptser’s trombone and Open Grave’s multi-instrumental accompaniment will press the boundaries of your music-listening imagination.
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The Music of Poul Ruders: Volume 6
Bridge Records #9336
Poul Ruders has been present on my listening radar for a couple years, but I hadn’t really dived into his music until I listened to this CD. From the album’s contents – Piano Concerto No. 2, Bel Canto for solo violin, Serenade On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean for string quartet and accordion – and the other works of Ruders I’m familiar with – Fairytale and the second Piano Sonata – it is clear he possesses a uniquely compelling musical sensibility. Both cumulatively and individually, the works on this CD demonstrated a Ruders’ flawless dramatic sense and his ability to convey his rhetoric with a wide and sincere range of musical expressions.
The album’s first composition, Piano Concerto No. 2, stood out to me so strongly, it has become one of my favorite piano concertos – at least as a knee-jerk reaction. This work seems particularly concerned with sonic color and does not attempt to develop a traditional soloist-ensemble dialogue. For example – instead of conversing with the orchestra – the piano pulls its accompaniment more and more quickly through time (in the first movement) and then uses the timbres of the orchestra to inflect intimate and bold passages (in the second movement). Beyond its world-class piano writing, the Piano Concerto No. 2 explores timbre in a clever and fresh way, namely in the second movement where Ruders melds the sounds of the piano and orchestra into a colorful monster of musical lyricism and force.
The remaining works on the CD are starkly subdued beside the scale of the Piano Concerto No. 2. Bel Canto, for solo violin, is the next composition on the album and is cut from the same cloth of musical intimacy as the primary material in the Piano Concerto No. 2’s second movement. The piece is deliberately beautiful and, as a result, drifts into the sound world of neo-romanticism yet it retains Ruders’ ineffable aural fingerprints. Bel Canto is unabashedly beautiful, but Ruders doesn’t abandon the melodic and textural spontaneity that is present in many of his more intense pieces. Here, in the place of the crashing brass chords or wild changes in orchestral colors we hear in Fairytale, Concerto in Pieces, and the second Piano Concerto, Ruders decorates Bel Canto’s folk-inspired melodies with dissonant double stops and left-hand pizzicati, transforming what could be trite or saccharine into pure Poul Ruders.
The CD’s final composition, Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, is similarly subdued in tone to Bel Canto but is much more earnest and even wild at times. The unusual instrumentation – accordion and string quartet – made my roommate cock and eyebrow when he saw the CD on our dining table, but it is an impressively compatible timbral marriage, at least in Ruders’ hands. According to the liner notes, Ruders based this work’s title on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and designed the music’s coloristic sphere to insinuate an upward gaze, perusing the night sky. Serenade summates the dense stylistic topography outlined in the CD’s first two compositions by mashing together frenetic chromaticism, dark amorphous harmonies and pure diatonicism. More the once, Ruders finds textures and techniques that meld the accordion and strings together, creating a unified ensemble sound I did not expect. Some moments bring the instruments back to reality, so to speak, like the fifth – dubbed “Stardust” – which gradually applies increasingly dissonant suspensions to an accordion background that starts out as a clear resemblance to a street corner organ grinder’s music, but slowly melts away into abstraction.
Despite sudden, brief explosions of instensity, Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean is mostly mysterious and subtle. With respect to this album’s entire contents, Ruders’ ability to produce such compelling yet clearly delineated musical imprints from one piece to another is undeniably laudable, particularly given the expansive musical palette on which he draws. I find it particularly respectable that – although he may drift towards widely accepted musical categories – Ruders’ musical idiosyncrasy wards off all but the most indirect “-isms”.
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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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Visions de l’Amen
Marilyn Nonken, Piano I
Sarah Rothenberg, Piano II
In the spring of 1943, in the midst of the German occupation of Paris, Olivier Messiaen, assisted by his teenaged student Yvonne Loriod, presented a most unusual duo-piano recital. The times being what they were, there were undoubtedly a few Vichy collaborationists in the audience, taking down notes, alert to detect any evidence of sedition or rebellion (which might have been expected of one who had been conscripted in the Army of the Republic and spent some time in a POW camp following the downfall of France). If so, they were disappointed. For Messiaen’s music, as heard in Visions de l’Amen, already existed on a supernal plane that was totally alien to the fascist mind that can only believe in the realities it can compel other people to accept. And Messiaen was that rarest of creatures, one who would continually seek the spiritual truth and transcendant beauty in the dogmas of the Catholic faith.
Concerning “dogma”, which refers to any religious doctrine or belief that is not open to disputation (a notion that leaves a bad odor for many people), it needs to be said that Messiaen continually sought the mystical reality behind those dogmas. Without the existence of that reality, to someone like Messiaen, dogma is meaningless because it would then just boil down to the statement: “You must believe this because those of us who know what is good for you, say so.” Messiaen sought, and found, the spiritual realities he craved in his faith, and it informed his music almost from his eartliest beginnings as a composer.
One other thing you need to know about Messiaen is that he heard the most basic elements of music – such as color, harmony, rhythm, pitch, and time – in a markedly different way than the great majority of us do. With the assistance of Yvonne Loriod, his artistic collaborator, inspiration, and his eventually his wife, he explored new and breathtaking avenues in all these respects over a course of fifty years, until his death in 1992. Of Loriod, who herself died just recently on 17 May, 2010, he paid the highest tribute to her formidable piano technique: “I am able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible.”
On the present Bridge recording, Sarah Rothenberg, distinguished American pianist who studied Messiaen’s music in Paris with Loriod, and Marilyn Nonken, who has already established a reputation as a champion of modern music, give an enthusiastic and supernally skilled interpretation of what is certainly one of the greatest works of the modern era. There are seven movements in Visions de l’Amen, and they reflect aspects of the eternal Amen (“So Be It”) like facets of light show its component colors. They are: 1) Amen of Creation, 2) Amen of the Stars, the Planets, and the Rings of Saturn, 3) Amen of the Agony of Jesus, 4) Amen of Desire, 5) Amen of the Angels, the Saints, and Bird Songs, 6) Amen of Judgement, and 7) Amen of the Consummation. Unity is provided by the “Theme of the Creation, heard first in (1) and at various key points throughout the score, emphasizing the overall purpose and design of “L’Amen” itself. “Desire” in (4) refers to spiritual striving, expressed in themes representing deep tenderness and infinite patience, and “a paroxysm of thirst” (Messiaen), in the sense that the angel called the prophet Daniel “man of desire.“ The bird songs in (5) reflect Messiaen’s abiding interest in nature’s singers – here the Thrush, Chaffinch, and Blackcap – as voicing the purest praise to the Amen of Creation. As ornithologist and musician, he heard their songs with an unusual degree of sensitivity and incorporated them in his music to the end of his life.
The physical demands of Messiaen’s music must surely have required Rothenberg and Nonken to posses something of the technical skills and keen sensitivity to each other’s performance of a present-day Messian and Loriod. The composer’s pulsations, polyrhythms, and sudden changes of register, brilliant, scintillating rhythms and colors, culminate in the final movement as coruscating facets of light like “the whole rainbow of precious stones mentioned in the Apocalypse, sounding, jarring, dancing, coloring and perfuming the light of life” (Messiaen). (“Perfuming?” You’ve got me there, pal! But then, a mystic would understand these things.) Captured in beautiful, glorious-sounding detail by producer Judith Sherman and engineer Andrew Bradley, this has to be one of the very finest recordings of 2010. To those who might think it short measure at 48:53, I would say in closing that (a) what would you possibly program with Visions de l’Amen as a filler? And (b) you will probably want to audition this incredible music again once you’ve heard it, so that 49 minutes will soon become 98, then 147, and so on (Amen).
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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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Red Garuda / Rilke Songs / Bagatelles /
Peter Serkin, James Conlon, New York Philharmonic, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Orion String Quartet
First, a clarification: “Red Garuda” is not the name of a gangster, a professional wrestler, or a rodeo cowboy. Garudas are colossal bird-like creatures that exist in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. A golden Garuda is the symbol of Indonesia and the name of its national airline. A red Garuda is the national symbol of Thailand. More to the point of why contemporary American composer Peter Lieberson (b.1946) chose this title for his work for piano and orchestra, the Garuda is said to be capable of flying vast distances without tiring and of changing its shape and size. Thus, the creature can be taken as an emblem of absolute freedom, of a life unrestricted by conventional limitations. The inspiration for the creative artist is clear. As Lieberson explains it, “Before I began composing the piece, I had a dream vision of sitting on the back of a huge Garuda flying over different kinds of landcapes.” The work premiered, significantly, in 1999, the year the composer married his wife, the late, beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The wonderful upsurge of powerful emotion one encounters in the 25 minute work may well reflect the joy he felt at this time.
Red Garuda is listed as Lieberson’s second piano concerto, but is really more a symphonic poem with a piano soloist, much in the way that Scriabin’s Poem of Fire is. The analogy is not an idle one, as Lieberson employs Scriabinesque pulsating chords, tubular bells, and powerful contributions from the lower strings and bass drum to portray the Garuda’s emergence from the darkness and the apprehensive atmosphere of a pre-dawn world. This striking introduction, powerfully realized by pianist Peter Serkin and by the New York Philharmonic under James Conlon, gives way to variations symbolizing the ancient elements of Fire, Water, and Earth combined with Wind, as the Garuda soars over continents and oceans.
Eastern mythology is one thing. But when it comes to the verse of German language Austro-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), that’s something else! I must confess I’m beyond my depth when it comes to explicating lines such as “Oh be inspired for the flame, in which a Thing disppears and bursts into something else; the spirit of re-creation which masters this earthly form, loves most the pivoting point where you are no longer yourself.” While even Lieberson admits there are lines in Rilke that defy exact explanation, the sense one gets in Rilke of continual transformation, of becomings rather than endings, obviously appeals strongly to him as a composer. That he could draw on the interpretive insights of his wife and of his frequent collaborator Peter Serkin in his settings of five of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” was definitely to his advantage. I was especially impressed with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s considerable prowess as a song interpreter, which is essential in re-creating the sense of a very difficult and often paradoxical poet, and then expressing it in terms of pure lyricism.
I wasn’t as taken with Lieberson’s three Bagatelles (1985), partly because the titles puzzled me. My notion of a “bagatelle” is that of a trifle or an amusing anecdote, something lighter in mood than these somber piano pieces. “Proclamation” bears out its name musically well enough, but “Spontaneous Songs” seems a misnomer for a group of short subjects that strike me as rather hesitant and not terribly lyrical at all, and “Nocturne” might have been a better title for the restlessly probing third movement that Lieberson calls “The Dance.”
I’m more sanguine about Lieberson’s Piano Quintet (2003), an energetic work that further benefits from an outstanding performance by Serkin and the Orion String Quartet (Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violins; Steve Tenenbom, viola; and Timothy Eddy, cello). By this time, Serkin had been performing with the Orions for years, going back to the old days at Marlboro, and its shows in the solid mutual support these musicans give one another. The spirit of Cape Breton folk fiddling permeates the mood and rhtyhms of this music, evoking a place with strong associations for the composer. Part I of the work is in the form of a fantasy based on a four-note motif heard early-on. There is a brief interlude, the theme of which becomes the subject of a finely wrought fugue in Part II which builds to a vigorous climax. We have a recolection of earlier material, including a terse quotation of the four-note motif that we heard at the beginning, and then it all ends suddenly, good night and good luck!
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Music for Piano, including Sonata, Op. 91 and “Rustles of Spring”
Jerome Lowenthal, piano
Question: What does the music of Norwegian composer Christian Sinding (1856-1941) have to do with the contemporary music of our time (which, presumably, is what the Sequenza21.com website is all about)? I’d have to say, “Absolutely nothing.” Of course, I pretty much review what our zookeeper sends me, but Sinding seems a really odd fit. In his student days in Leipzig he was under the spell of the new music of the day, which then meant Liszt and not Wagner’s “music of the future.” His forms are conventional, and his harmony while striking, was used mostly for coloristic purposes and was decidedly not revolutionary. Even his Sonata in B Minor, Op 91, his most ambitious work on the present program, while organically conceived like Liszt’s masterpiece in the same key, is nowhere near as daring. As Jerome Lowenthal points out in his program notes, Sinding relies on subtle mood fluctuations to achieve organicism, rather than the contrapuntal devices Liszt employed.
A survey of the ten character pieces that accompany the sonata on this disc reveals Sinding to be a true Romantic composer of the old school, distinguished by his continuous flow of feeling, his turns of phrase that seem to embody the cadences of his Norwegian language, and his lack of emotional complication. His was music of heartfelt simplicity, to be played in the parlor “at the end of a perfect day.” The virtuosic element occurs mainly in the tumultuous flow of his short pieces, often ending, as do “Con fuoco” and “Capricccio” in a very decisive cadence that we might take as part of the composer’s thumbprint. The more intimate pieces such as “Melodie” and “Serenade” embody a mood of gently melancholic yearning rather than pathos or neurotic self-pity. “Irrlicht” is a will-o-the-wisp, descriptive but less ambitious than Liszt’s take on the same shyly lit subject. And his pieces in march time, “Alla marcia,” “Pomposo,” and “March grotesque” (but without the sinister spin that Prokofiev would later give that qualifying adjective) are pleasant but certainly not militaristic.
That brings us to “Rustles of Spring,” which was once so enormously popular that, as Lowenthal wryly observes, pianos of that period were said to have learned the Sinding habit and could play it by themselves, without the benefit of a pianist! Lowenthal makes much of the fulsome flow of feeling and the composer’s evident love of nature in this piece. As we have heard in his traversal of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra (Bridge 9301 A/B), which like the present offering originally appeared on the Arabesque label, this pianist likes to “take it big” with the music, and he is here given numerous opportunities to do so. It all makes for a very pleasant way to spend your time, as long as you’re not looking for music of real greatness.
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A PORTRAIT OF GEORGE CRUMB
Tony Arnold, soprano
Robert Shannon, piano
David Starobin, guitar
George Crumb, percussion
Bridge Records (DVD)
American composer George Crumb, as we learn early in this delightful video, was born on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. He’s been an unsettling influence for people with fixed ideas about music ever since. Reasoning that we all have different DNA and life experiences, he states, “I have to distrust any school of composition that eliminates the persona of the individual composer.” Certainly, his footprint is different from that of other carbon-based life forms in the music profession. In this program of performance and interview, Volume 14 in Bridge Records’ George Crumb Edition, we get to know the composer in a very personal way. He may have his idiosyncrasies, but he is also utterly without pretence and filled with earnestness to communicate to his audience in a way that some of our other contemporaries would do well to cultivate.
Crumb is relatively well behaved in this program. There is no “spoken flute,” no pouring glass marbles into an open piano or any other aleatoric (i.e., random) technique. In fact, in Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music), the major work for extended piano in the middle of program, he is at pains to notate precisely what he expects of the performer. In this instance, it is pianist Robert Shannon, who does a fabulous job realizing a score in which he is required to play the piano in non-traditional, percussive ways involving considerable open-piano techniques.
The work is so-named because it consists of ruminations on Thelonius Monk’s “˜Round Midnight. Other composers have fooled around with the strings inside the piano, but none, I imagine, as well as Crumb. Shannon is continually on his feet, plucking or striking the strings with his hands or using them to play arpeggio like figures and palm clusters that impress the listener with their flights of fancy reinforcing the prevailing mood of the piece. From time to time, he strikes the metal crossbeams with a yarn-covered mallet, the repeated notes adding an eerie quality that enhances the nocturnal theme. (He does all that in addition to playing the keyboard without the benefit of a bench.) All these techniques serve the real purpose of extending Monk’s familiar main tune through a series of nine ruminations in which it drifts in and out of our consciousness like a dream without losing its character. In the process, we encounter mysterious block chords, mischievous staccato figures, nightmare distortions, forte passages, ringing triads, rocking or falling triplets, tritones, and even, in 6: Golliwog Revisited, an affectionate parody on Debussy’s famous Cakewalk, complete with that composer’s impudent dig at Wagner’s “Tristan” chord!
A special treat on this program is vocalist Tony Arnold. We hear from her first in Three Early Songs from Crumb’s 18th year: “Let It Be Forgotten” and “Wind Elegy” (texts by Sara Teasdale) and “Night” (Robert Southey. In case you haven’t noticed, a fascination with the night runs through Crumb’s music.) The composer himself terms these deeply felt early works, which he dedicated to his future wife Elizabeth Brown, reminiscent of Barber and Rachmaninov, though a close listening reveals his own “latent fingerprints.” More mature works heard here are a lively “Sit Down, Sister” (2003), based on the well known African-American spiritual and featuring the talents of all four members of the ensemble, and Apparition (1979), originally written for the unique voice of Jan DeGaetani and here rendered with the greatest vividness and luminosty by Arnold and Shannon. The latter-named work is based on extracts from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Significantly the verses are from the sequence in the poem known as the “Death Carol,” and not the Lincoln elegy with its rich symbolism of the drooping star and the song of the thrush that has inspired most of the other composers who have treated the subject. Tony Arnold’s pure tones, her cleanly rendered melismas, and her unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the text, all serve to convey Whitman’s paean to Death as the central point between life and a return to the universal life force.
And, yes, there’s broad humor in this program, primarily in two excerpts from Mundus Canis (A Dog’s Life) entitled “Fritzi” and “Yoda” and inspired by canine members of the Crumb household. Both are deft portraits that capture the personality of their subjects. Yoda, the fluffy white Bichon Frise that we see on the cover (I actually thought it was a stuffed toy until I watched the video) is characterized by scampering guitar passages and rasping percussive sounds, ending in the words “Bad Dog,” spoken by Crumb, which give the program its title. But a curious ambiguity persists: is Yoda the naughty dog of the title, or is it Crumb himself?
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Amy Burton, soprano
Patrick Mason, baritone
John Musto, piano
This was my first acquaintance with American composer John Musto: not his opera Volpone, nor his Passacaglia for Large Orchestra, both of which have won him acclaim, but his songs. Perhaps they are his most typical creations, for they show an uncommon, unerring ability to meld sound and sense. Musto has the rare ability to find exactly the right musical setting for each poetic text and to fit it with the perfect accompaniment. In this program, he has two ideal song interpreters for collaborators. Patrick Mason’s deep baritone seems perfect for the songs in the first set of the program, “Viva, Sweet Love.” It is complimented perfectly by Amy Burton’s attractive and versatile soprano voice, which possesses the flexibility to encompass everything from Mozart heroines to Broadway to music written for the French diva Yvonne Printemps. Musto himself plays the piano accompaniments, which often have a life of their own, carrying on and deepening the mood of a song.
Musto’s songs are more complex than they might seem at first hearing. They can be deceptively sparse sounding, as they often are in the “Viva, Sweet Love,” set to poems by e. e. cummings and James Laughlin that are often deliberately cryptic in their syntax in order to force the reader to delve into the deeper levels of emotion and meaning that lie underneath, as it does in cummings’ “image of the sea stretching forth and being taken in and released again as a metaphor for “love, / the breaking / / of your / soul / upon / my lips” (as is the sea marvelous). Or take the same poet’s marveling at the ever-renewed enchantment of love by each new twosome who discover it: “such a sky and such a sun / I never knew and neither did you / and everybody never breathed / quite so many kinds of yes” (sweet spring). In these songs, Patrick Mason cultivates a spare, unadorned vocal quality that serves the needs of the poetry well.
In the six lyrics of the set Quiet Songs, Amy Burton applies a greater variety of vocal techniques to a more diverse collection of songs. In cummings’ “maggie and milly and molly and may” four little girls go down to the beach to play and each brings back a different impression, which is really a part of herself, from the experience, “for whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” Quiet Songs, to a text by Eugene O’Neill, explores different varieties of quiet and solitude: “Here / Sadness, too, / Is Quiet / Is the earth’s sadness / On autumn afternoons.” The musical setting here is quite different in mood and texture than it is for the denser setting Musto gives Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Christmas Carol, with its bitter lament for the lost meaning of the holiday: “How mute you lie within your vaulted grave. / The stone the angel rolled away with tears / is back upon your mouth these thousand years.”
The last part of the program has Mason and Burton alternating a program of eight other songs, including a moving duet in Old Gray Couple (text by Archibald MacLeish), in which New York Festival of Song co-founder Michael Barrett joins Musto for the duo-piano accompaniment. Here, the text and its interpretation give poignant meaning to the paradox that love, in old age, dwells on “absence, not presence: what the world would be / without your footstep in the world / “¦ love, like light, grows / dearer toward the dark.” Some of these poetic texts such as Mark Campbell’s Nude at the Piano and Dorothy Parker’s Résumé and Social Note are both pungent and pithy, and Musto finds the settings appropriate for them: “Guns aren’t lawful; / Nooses give; / Gas smells awful; / You might as well live.” Flamenco (text by C. K. Williams) has an appropriately Andalusian quality to its accompaniment, even as Mason and Musto (as composer) focus on the paradox that the Flamenco guitarist, who it turns out is a drug addict, doesn’t live above a whorehouse as he claims, and isn’t even Spanish, still “played like a fiend.” Penelope’s Song, to a poem by Didi Balle and sung here by Amy Burton, is perhaps the most the most intriguing poem of all in its repeated entreaty by the speaker “Don’t hurry home, love / Don’t hurry home / . . . I’m in love with beginnings. / Landing and leaving / Weaving and unweaving, / This nomad’s heart / Needs to start / Love’s journey again.”
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