Archive for the “Bridge Records” Category

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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Horn Quintet (2002)
Da’ase (1996)
String Quartet No. 6 (1999)
Trochaic Trot (2000)
The Name of the Game (2001)

Bridge Records

Richard Wernick (b. Boston, Mass, 1934), on the evidence of this program, writes such serious-sounding music that listeners may be apt to take him too seriously in the moments when he’s being playful – as most composers do from time to time. The playfulness comes out in at least two places here, both guitar pieces commissioned and played by David Starobin. Da’ase is the name for a traditional Yemenite wedding dance, constructed in units of seven beats. Being a modern composer, Wernick can’t let the old form be without tinkering a bit with it, mostly in the way of abstraction and increased syncopation. (Don’t try doing this dance at home!) Trochaic Trot provides further challenges to Starobin’s virtuosity in that Wernick bases it on the three-syllable poetic foot of that name, with emphasis on the first syllable, modifying rhythm and motif throughout to keep the performer continually alert.

The Quintet for French Horn and String Quartet posed problems of a different sort. When he was first commissioned by Emily Fine to write the work for her favorite instrument, Wernick researched the literature to see what other composers had done. The answer: astonishingly little. The difficulties involved in blending the horn with a string quartet in terms of volume and timbre were undoubtedly a main deterrent. (There’s a horn quartet by Mozart, who fudged by including two violas and one violin, instead of vice versa, in the string quartet, and that’s about it.) Wernick solved the problem by creating spaces for the horn within the standard texture of the string quartet, the horn playing in its middle register when the strings are very high or very low, while also employing its own highest and lowest registers, making for a five-part texture. As the work progresses, the horn, heedless of danger, draws closer to the strings while still maintaining its own distinctive character. The performers in this instance, hornist Myron Bloom and the Juilliard String Quartet (Joel Smirnoff, Ronald Copes, Samuel Rhodes, and Joel Krosnick) do a splendid job characterizing this work in three movements: 1 Fast, bright; 2 Spectral, disembodied, and 3 Skitterish. The second movement is as eerie-sounding as its subtitle. The third gives way to more lyrical, and pensive, music in the second half.

Quartet No. 6 is the gravest, most serious work on the program, owing largely to its commission by Jacqueline and Bert Harmon of the Jerusalem String Quartet in memory of their cousin Henry Levy (1908-1995), who devoted his life to relocating displaced Jewish victims of oppression in all the world’s hot spots and despised totalitarianism in all its forms. Written in one densely packed movement, the entire work is generated from the opening motif stated by unison violins and viola, and thus possesses an unusual thematic and emotional unity. The Colorado String Quartet, consisting of Julie Rosenfeld and D. Lydia Redding, violins; Marka Gustavsson, viola; and Diane Chaplin, cello, give their very best in this performance.

The Name of the Game, for solo guitar and eleven players, once again features the artistry of David Starobin, together with members of the International Contemporary Ensemble on flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, bass, and harp, with two percussionists, all conducted by Cliff Colnot. It’s in two movements, playfully entitled “The Name is the Game” and “The Game is the Name,” but is not in the form of a palindrome for all that. Much of Wernick’s intellectual play consists of finding a musical motto for the artist’s name (It would have been much easier if he’d been named BACH or D. SCHostakovich instead of Starobin). In the end, Wernick employed the musically useful letters in the guitarist’s name, D, A, D, E-flat, B, A, B-flat, where S=German “Es” = E-flat, T=”Ti”=B natural, and B=German B-flat. In this work, slow music evolves into fast, and vice versa, and scherzando passages become more introspective. Actually, since the first movement is really two movements, fast and slow, and the second ends in a coda that becomes more ruminating in character as the guitar takes the lead, we really have a work in three or four movements instead of just two. The ending is a long diminuendo into silence.

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2000 Notes
String Quartet No. 1
Haiku Settings
Oboe Concerto
Designs for Violin, Piano
Woodwind Quintet

Bridge Records

Ursula Mamlok was born in Berlin in 1923, left Germany to escape the Nazis in 1939, and has resided once again in the city of her birth since 2006. In between, she spent her seminal years in the United States, absorbing the influences of her teachers (including Vittorio Giannini, Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, and Ralph Shapey). She probably represents the purest example of a “modernism” of any composer whom I’ve reviewed lately. Since that fact is not calculated to endear her music to me, I feel a particular obligation to be fair and objective in the present review.

 One immediately noticeable quality of Mamlok’s music is her terseness of expression. As a result of it, we have here on this compact disc seven major works by the composer, without straining the time limit of the medium. Another is her constant rhythmic, textural and registral variations and her manipulations in pitch, traits that keep the listener off-balance as she constantly seeks new combinations of elements. Finally, there is a nascent lyricism in her writing that is usually kept submerged under her other preoccupations. On this program, it finds partial expression in the Haiku Settings for soprano and flute, but is found most fully only in her early Woodwind Quintet of 1956. One also detects a fascination with musical games; the opening movements of String Quartet No. 1 (1962) and 2000 Notes are in the form of palindromes, while in Designs (1962) Mamlok experiments with the use of twelve tones in four basic rows.

 A number of famous musicians contributed their talents to this program, a testimony to their esteem for the composer, so I will try to give then all credit. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is solo performer in Notes 2000, whose four movements are realized in a mere 7:23. Only the first movement, Gruff, has any sort of expressive subtitle, the others having only metronomic markings. Brief bursts of activity resolved into sustained tones in the opening movement are succeeded by rapid, rhythmically irregular figures, melodic and chordal motifs (but not melodies) in the middle movements, and contrary motion octaves and a final fff cluster chord in the finale. This is “pure” music with a vengeance! As such, it places great stress on the artist in attempting to characterize it – if such can even be done. In Haiku Settings (1967), with soprano Tony Arnold and flutist Claire Chase, Mamlok attempts to convey sense impressions in many features of her writing for the flute, for instance the angular, asymmetrical shapes in the flute lines, set against the interval of a minor third in the vocal, suggest the gull rocking fitfully in the restless sea in “So cold are the waves.” Her virtuosic writing for the flute is in stark contrast to her mannered use of the voice, which is used comparably to the flute only in the last Haiku, “How cool the green hay smells.” In Designs (1962) violinist David Bowlin and pianist Jacob Greenberg wrestle with the pithy (5:48) work’s numerous configurations of pitch, rhythm and texture.

 String Quartet No. 1(1962), which clocks in at a leisurely (for this composer) 9:59, absorbs the collective talents of the Daedalus Quartet, whole are often called upon to exercise high degrees of independence and individual virtuosity in dealing with the shifting patterns of Mamlok’s rhythmically fluid writing. In the opening of the second movement, a scherzo, the quartet members play wide-spanning figures at different speeds and with different articulations; in the trio section, viola and cello play cadenzas, prestissimo and fortissimo. All of this sounds more cerebral than engaging to my ears, although those listeners of a more “modernist” persuasion may think otherwise. Concertino for Wind Quintet, String Orchestra and Percussion (1987), with the Odense (Denmark) Symphony Orchestra under Scott Yoo, blends Mamlok’s neoclassical techniques with her modernist language. The four movements are entitled Energetic, Joyful, Elegy, and Playful. The composer employs her material in irregular phrases and rhythms, so it scarcely seems appropriate to term it “melodic.” The most convincing movement is the Elegy, its dark mood relieved somewhat by two virtuosic cadenzas for the wind instruments.

 Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra (1976, rev. 2003) features the talents of oboist Heinz Holliger and the Ensemble SurPlus conducted by James Avery. The three movements – Spirited, Dirge, and Rondo – are played without a break. A feature of the opening movement is the brief, rhythmically free cadenzas for oboe, xylophone and harp. (In fact, the two percussionists in the group get quite a workout in this opus.) In the slow movement and the finale, the texture of the music is punctuated by the oboe’s multiphonics (which I assume accounts for the strangulated quality of the soloist’s tone, which elsewhere sounds more like the “duck & bagpipes” school of oboe playing than the singing tone of the Heinz Holliger we have been used to hearing.) Woodwind Quintet (1956), the earliest work on this program, was also the one I found most satisfying, not the least for a true lyricism that I found rare in the later works. The performance by the woodwind quintet Windscape is superb, especially when dealing with the swinging eighth-note figures and the rapid scalar passages and trills in the opening movement. The second movement, marked Andante tranquillo, is nocturnal in mood, characterized by a melismatic melody that passes through the ensemble. The finale, marked Allegro molto, is spirited, ending decisively in a brilliant coda.

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 Steven Ricks

Steven Ricks

Mild Violence

Bridge Records CD 9256

The term “Mild Violence,” a PG Rating on a video game box, inspired the title for a 2005 chamber work on Steven Ricks’ Bridge recital CD. Performed by the New York New Music Ensemble with characteristic Ä—lan, the piece features explosive percussive utterances, juxtaposing moments of pointillism with quirky ostinato and shimmering splashes of harmonic color. While one ‘gets’ the tongue in cheek humor, the music is anything but mild; Indeed; it’s stirring stuff!

Ricks runs the electronic music studio at Brigham Young University in Utah. Two works for chamber groups and electronics are included here. “Boundless Light” is a meditation on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Featuring shakuhachi-styled effects and vigorous electronic interjections; one is reminded of Davidovsky and Krieger here. It’s excellently rendered by Carlton Vickers. “American Dreamscapes” features the most thrilling moment on the CD – a swelling crescendo of electronics that introduces an ensemble tutti of considerable fervor. The piece features alto saxophonist John Sampen; who impresses with all manner of playing – including copious bends, microtones, and altissimo notes.

The Talujon Percussion Quartet performs “Dividing Time;” the piece’s background deals with the Divisions of time at the beginning of creation.Cleverly, Ricks uses overlapping polyrhythms to illustrate this inspirational focus, accumulating a rhythmic canvass of considerable flexibility and coloristic variety.

Curtis Macombcer is the “go-to guy” for violin-electronics pieces. “Beyond the Zero,” based on Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” contains sudden outbursts of fury, uncommon to the Synchronisms. But after an early focus on ‘effects’ – an explosive musical illustration of the V2 rocket from Pynchon’s novel, Macomber is given a great deal of angular electroacoustic interplay of the high modernist variety – his bread and butter. The piece is an excellent addition the solo plus electronics repertoire.

The CD closes with “Haiku,” a tenderly evocative piece for percussion and electronics. Spoken poetry is interwoven with prayer bowls and tam-tams, creating and ethereal, Eastern-influenced soundscape. Its inclusion is fortuitous; it allows us a full length glimpse at a talented composer of considerable versatility.

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Blue MountainBlue Mountain

Justin Dello Joio

Bridge Records

Edvard Grieg – Njí¥l Sparbo, bass
Nina Grieg – Marianne Andersen, mezzo soprano
Doctor Rossing – Torben Grue, baritone
Percy Grainger – Nils Harald Sí¸dal, tenor
The Norwegian Wind Ensemble – Kenneth Jean, conductor

This one act chamber opera, scored for only a handful of voices and winds, is amazingly colorful and nuanced in orchestration and full of lyrical power. The introduction, for winds alone, oozes and shimmers while presenting one of the accompaniment’s best used leitmotifs – rapid crescendos and decrescendos in the various instrument choirs. The scoring for winds (with a solo violin and bass) provides a reedy, dark, and luscious grounding for the lyrical gifts of the singers. When Njí¥l Sparbo, as Grieg, erupts with a call of “Silence!,” the ensemble is properly put into its place.

The vocalists in this work, telling the tale of Grieg on his deathbed, exude strong emotional profiles without every devolving into melodrama. The libretto, by Andrew Boyle, is tight, poetic, and gives us the emotional cores of the action instead of simply chugging through plot descriptions. Sparbo, in particular, seethes with rage at his current situation and surroundings. Marianne Andersen, as Nina Grieg, is equally skilled at giving a powerful and touching performance. Even a part that could have been a simple plot device, Doctor Rossing, is brought to emotional life by Torben Grue. Percy Grainger, sung by Nils Harald Sí¸dal, is vital and energetic.

I keep using the word “powerful.” There is a reason (other than lack of vocabulary). This is a moving, colorful, and emotional composition. This is opera done right. All the energies in this work are focused upon the emotions of each character and the deeper subtext beyond the surface events. The ending of the opera is nebulous and does not clearly convey the action in this audio-only setting. The plot description lacks details on this moment as well, but the music is ethereal and touching so my lack of visual stimulus doesn’t bother me. I want to see this opera, which I find is a good reaction to just hearing the work. Blue Mountain is lean and lithe. Dello Joio’s compositional craft and attention to emotional trajectories combine in a strongly effective (and affecting) opera.

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Music of Fred Lerdahl

Music of Fred Lerdahl, vol. 2

Various Artists

Bridge Records

Cross-Currents – Odense Symphony Orchestra; Paul Mann, conductor
Waltzes – Rolf Shulte, violin; Scott Nickrenz, viola; Fred Sherry, violoncello; Donald Palma, contrabass
Duo – Rolfe Schulte, violin; James Winn, piano
Quiet Music – Odense Symphony Orchestra; Paul Mann, conductor

I first learned the name Fred Lerdahl in the context of my grad work in music theory. His and Ray Jackendoff’s generative theory of tonal music was more familiar to me than any of Lerdahl’s music and, while I knew he was a composer, I was curious how his analytical theories informed his compositional choices. It might be an unfair generalization (as all generalizations are), but I wondered if Lerdahl’s music sounded like it was written by a theorist or a composer.

This recording of Lerdahl’s brings together orchestral and instrumental chamber music spanning almost a quarter of a century. The opening track, Cross-Currents, is a smooth and organic work for full orchestra. The opening brass motive is stretched, expanded, troped, and mutated in a variety of guises that would make most of the mid-century American Symphonists proud. The liner notes express a relation to Bartok and Debussy, but I hear a significant amount of Roy Harris and William Schuman. The pitch language of this work, as well as most of the others, is quasi-tonal. There is a sense of pitch foundation, but not one expressed through triadic harmonies.

The dozen Waltzes, for a low string quartet, are surprisingly dense for their apparent lightness. Each miniature has its own flair but the flow from one to the next is so logical and natural that it could be heard as a prolonged deconstruction of triple meter. The timbre of the ensemble keeps the works dark and somber even though there is some humor around.

The newest work on the disc, Duo for Violin and Piano, is far and away my favorite. The language is more spiky and tense, the ideas are a bit more sparse and spacious, and there is a stronger narrative arc to the movements. The first movement, Disputation, is rocky and jagged while the second, Elegy, is hauntingly lyrical and smooth. The two movements balance each other extremely well. The elegy particularly contains the most explosive emotive power on the disc. Rolf Schulte’s distinct edgy tone is a perfect fit for this music and his effortless technique scampers all over the notes. James Winn has great power against Schulte’s boldness and still manages to display impressive amounts of grace in quieter filigree passages.

The last work, the bookend of the earlier orchestra piece, is Quiet Music. As expected, the piece is subtle, somewhat subdued, and loaded with spritely energy. A solid rhythmic pulse pushes the music past mere lullaby country. Rich melodies, dark harmonies, and colorful orchestrations propel us on a lyrical journey through softness. This is quiet music indeed, but not somber or restful.

So what about the Theorist vs. Composer judgment? I must conclude that Fred Lerdahl is the best blend of both. He has used his generative ideas as a springboard for compelling and creative compositional uses. The music on this disc stays true to itself throughout and does not stray into idle areas. Everything fits nicely together, but not in a way that precludes surprise. Lerdahl’s theoretical ideas and compositional strategies are one in the same. Long story short, you aren’t hearing a theory lecture. You hear really good music.

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Jaffe.jpgJAFFE: Cut-Time; Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra; Poetry of the Piedmont; Homage to the Breath. North Carolina Symphony/Grant Llewellyn; David Hardy, cello; Odense Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann; Milagro Vargas, mezzo-soprano; 21st Century Consort/Christopher Kendall. BRIDGE 9255. 64 minutes.

Stephen Jaffe provides a tour of the music that has influenced him in a brief and engaging introductory essay to this Bridge release. Jaffe was born in 1954, and the list of influences will be familiar to anyone who has followed the careers of composers of that generation, which is, by the way, my generation. The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Tin Pan Alley, “˜60s avant-garde””this music (the list is by no means comprehensive) has found its way into the DNA of the composers and other musicians of the generation in question in ways both obvious and subtle.

Jaffe (on the evidence of the music on this disc) wears his influences clearly but lightly. The orchestral piece Cut-Time includes direct references to a number of older pop styles, including gospel and rag, but it comes off neither as a nostalgia trip nor as musical anthropology. And at a running time of about two minutes, it is very efficient.

In the Cello Concerto (2003) the influences are buried in the music and Mr. Jaffe’s own voice carries the day. His vision of the cello soloist as an individual voice is sympathetic and expressive. Jaffe solves the acoustic problem of making the cello sound well against the orchestra with a solution out of Elliott Carter’s toolbox””the cello is aided and abetted by changing groups supporting instruments. Cellist David Hardy gives a strong and expressive performance of the demanding solo part, and Paul Mann and the Odense Symphony provide eloquent accompaniment.

The last two pieces on the disc, Poetry of the Piedmont and Homage to the Breath don’t work quite as well for me as the Cello Concerto. They are both more concrete in their eclecticism than the Concerto and their expressive content seems more on and of the surface. That said they are both very attractive pieces and the performers (the North Carolina Symphony under Grant Llewellyn in Poetry and Milagro Argas and the 21st Century Consort under Christopher Kendall in Homage) give them dedicated readings

Jaffe’s music is made from a flexible vocabulary””references to tonal centers are frequent and freely deployed, and the composer is not afraid to let his atonal side show itself when the expressive occasion demands it. The result is a style that is both new and familiar. His music deserves a wide hearing. This release should help.


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Songs of Franz SchrekerSongs of Franz Schreker

Selections from Mutterlieder

Bridge Records

Hermine Haselbōck, mezzo-soprano
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone
Russel Ryan, piano

This collection of songs, all taken from Schreker’s Mutterlieder collection, features strong late-Romantic styled Lieder performed with lyrical and emotional conviction by all involved. The thirty songs assembled on this disc are portioned into subgroups with each subgrouping alternated by Haselbōck’s tender mezzo-soprano and Holzmair’s bright baritone. The tone of these songs is fairly typical of late-romantic-but-pre-expressionist angst. Poetry from many sources deals with expected topics: forest imagery, nostalgia in general, loss of love, and several songs devoted to dead children. The melodies for all of the songs, whether wistful or creepy, are all incredibly poignant and performed with great care. This collection of songs will be right at home next to all that Hugo Wolf you have in your CD player.

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Leon.jpgLEí“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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Orchestral SongsAmerican Orchestral Song

Patrick Mason, baritone

Bridge Records

The Odense Symphony Orchestra with Paul Mann, conductor
The Feast of Love, Virgil Thomson
Water-Colors, John Alden Carpenter
Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun, Roy Harris
Five Poems of Ancient China & Japan, Charles T. Griffes
Chahí¡l Mí³r of the Wine-Red Hand, Horatio Parker

Patrick Mason and the Odense Symphony Orchestra have recorded some real gems here. These pieces are lesser-known if not totally unknown works which exude pure American populism from the beginning of the 20th century. Mason’s voice is light but rich and each work perfectly frames his lyrical gifts. The orchestra’s background is solid and supportive, not overshadowing the voice and still showcasing the intricate orchestrations of each piece.

The music is fairly typical fare for these composers. Thomson’s work is melodious with a wonderful jaunty groove while Carpenter’s work is pure American Impressionism with short, perfectly chiseled movements. The most modernist sound on the disc belongs to Roy Harris with wandering tonality and restless percussion. In today’s climate of abundant “East meets West” music, the pentatonic melodies in Griffes’ work sound rather dated. The five pieces are still quite charming works and I fear that if they had been composed nowadays they would have ended up too serious and painfully poetic instead of light and beautiful. Parker’s music, the earliest composed work on the CD (1893), is total, no holds barred, in your face Romaniticism. Nothing wrong with that.

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