Archive for the “Naxos” Category

Maya Beiser
Innova CD

“From the 9th to the 15th centuries, the area which is now modern Spain was home to the greatest peaceful agglomeration of cultures ever known in the post-literate world…Even more remarkable than the flowering of art itself was the confluence of cultures that produced it: under the rule of Islam, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived and worked together in relative harmony.”
-Maya Beiser, Provenance liner notes essay
Cellist Maya Beiser’s latest CD for the Innova imprint seeks to craft music that celebrates the rich multiculturalism of the Iberian peninsula. Using medieval Spain as a jumping off point, Beiser has commissioned a collection of works that celebrate Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musical traditions. The participants frequently interweave stylistic and ethnic boundaries. The results are frequently engaging musical hybrids.
Iranian kamancheh composer and master Kalyan Kalhor’s “I Was There” features Beiser alongside oud performer Bassam Saba and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Shane Shanahan. This rhapsodic piece allows cello and oud each to negotiate long-breathed melismatic cadenzas. Eventually, Beiser and Saba come together, duetting in supple, then increasingly rhythmically incisive phrases.
Armenian dudukahar Djivan Gasparian’s “Memories” is a haunting and evocative piece. While Gasparian is not necessarily a household name, his performances on duduk (a double reed instrument) have populated a number of Hollywood films, including Blood Diamond and Gladiator. “Memories” captures the essential flavor of Armenian folk music, all the while bearing in mind the cello’s proclivities for generous-toned lyricism. Above an omnipresent drone, Beiser unleashes keening, ardent modal melodies.
Israeli composer Tamar Muskal took Ladino folksong as the basis for “Mar de Leche,” her collaboration with Beiser. Sung by Sephardic Jews in Spain, Ladino is a linguistic hybrid of Spanish and Hebrew. Muskal’s piece, a work for chamber ensemble that features the same musicians as the Kalhor work, abetted by the dynamic vocalist Etty Ben-Zaken. Beiser and Saba once again exhibit considerable musical chemistry. Beiser also incorporates some of the undulating vibrato and pitch-bends of Ben-Zaken’s vocal style, creating an organic set of timbral ensemble interactions.
In the summer of 2009, Beiser travelled with composer Douglas J. Cuomo to Cordoba and Granada: a field trip to do research that would abet the composition of his contribution to Provenance: “Only Breath.”
Inspired by the work of Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi (one of my favorites!), the piece finds Beiser in collaboration with sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari. Seeking to evoke the sound of wind passing through the prevalent minarets in Andalusia, Cuomo has crafted a work that plays with mobile filigrees and reverberant echoes. It makes good use of looping technology too; rather than using it to fashion a pad of repeated utterances, the loops instead allow for slow-building counterpoint of phantom cello Doppelgängers. The final result is a series of dovetailing, angst-filled melodic lines amid ghostly, floating verticals. I’ve heard many vocal settings of Rumi that have had much less to say than this more abstracted, yet tremendously thoughtful, instrumental meditation on his work.
Evan Ziporyn’s arrangement of the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir,” for Beiser and prog-rock luminary drummer Jerry Marotta, closes out the disc. While its clear that this is the piece with the most accessible crossover appeal on the CD, that awareness takes nothing away from its inclusion. It points up another kind of hybridized music-making – the influence of Eastern signatures on Led Zep’s rock-oriented sound. What’s more, Beiser and Marotta just plain tear it up!
Sometimes, a concept album contains a creative inspiration that is far better than the reality it imagines. In my view, Provenance extolls a wonderful collaborative atmosphere: a model for many future cross-cultural projects. Alas, this type of music-making is a relatively recent innovation and, in many venues, is still far from prevalent. One wishes Maya Beiser were able to make multicultural music without extolling the virtues of dhimmi under Muslim rule. During the Middle Ages, dhimmi – “people of the book” (Christians and Jews) – were sporadically allowed limited religious freedom in Iberia. But there were significant legal and cultural restrictions placed upon non-Muslim citizens; these were terms of surrender, not of collaboration or accommodation. Thus, my reading of history doesn’t allow me to share Beiser’s utopian view of medieval multiculturalism. I’d rather listen to Provenance as a hopeful and tantalizing glimpse at what music-making and, indeed, cultural coexistence, may increasingly look like in the future than to revise or rewrite our spotty attempts at getting along in the past.

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Leoš Janáček

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Breiner


Peter Breiner, music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, has done us a service in arranging and recording a series of suites from the operas of Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), with the object of making some of the composer’s most vibrant music accessible to a wider public outside the opera house. To judge from what I hear in these suites from Jenufa and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Breiner has succeeded admirably as both arranger and conductor. (Even as we speak, a second volume of Janáček suites, consisting of Katya Kabanova and The Makropoulos Affair, has been released by Naxos.)

Janáček has been called “the first minimalist composer,” but the analogy is misleading. Much of the effectiveness of his writing is due to his assimilation of the natural pitch, rhythm, and inflections of the Czech language. From this study, he derived what he called “speech tunes.”  These he applied as as short, repeated motifs to build his unique dramatic style. The repetition of these motifs has a powerful cumulative effect. It is, however, quite different from the way repetition is often used by our present-day Minimalists, which to my mind can be quite boring compared with the result Janáček achieved.

In terms of his orchestrations, on the other hand, you’d have to consider Janáček a “Maximalist,” if there is such a word (if not, coin it at once!) His scores are continuously busy, involving every family of the orchestra. Symphonic players must really love Janáček. No matter what your instrument, he doesn’t keep you sawing away in the background on some boring accompaniment for long; sooner or later, you will have your moment in the sun. In particular, his distinctive writing for the brass is highly imaginative and is often used for expressive purposes. In Jenufa, a dark, troubled tale of passion and jealousy in which, among other things, the heroine’s love child is drowned in a mill race by her envious stepmother, the sounds of the brass are often blurred as in a miasma, psychologically reflecting the internal turmoil of the characters. The mill itself is characterized by the ceaseless tapping of the xylophone, to be replaced later by the smoother, undulating sound of the harp, when the sinister crisis has been resolved and Jenufa has at last found happiness.

The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is an opera in a different mood, based on a fictional Czech hero who rivals Baron Münchhausen as a shameless liar. As befits a drunken hero who lives in a wine vat and is at one point sentenced to die in a beer barrel, the music associated with Broucek is highly colored. In the opening movement of the suite, our hero’s name, Mataj Broucek, is blared out for us by the horns and trumpets. When one of his imaginary “excursions” takes him to the moon, we hear mystic strings and harp glissandi. In the last excursion, when Broucek finds himself in 15 th century Prague, the savior of his country against the onslaughts of the Austrian Emperor, the scoring becomes more robust as Janáček invokes the same Hussite chorale that Smetana had previously used in Ma Vlast (My Homeland), and for much the same nationalistic purpose.

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Mass (1971)

Jubilant Sykes, baritone (The Celebrant)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop


By now, almost all our readers must have heard of this sensational recording and the string of awards it has garnered in the classical industry. After a long period of benign neglect, Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed (or notorious?) masterwork has resurfaced again in a modest trio of recordings by Kent Nagano (2005), Kristjan Jarvi (2009), and now Marin Alsop that attest to its vitality. Its kaleidoscope of musical styles, mixing live musicians and pre-recorded tape, is mind-boggling. The listener is assaulted with rock, blues, and classical reverberations of everything from medieval chant to modern polytonality, Beethoven, symphonic music, traditional protestant hymns, brass bands, revivalism, early Christian melismas and tropes and Hebrew liturgy, echs of Stravinsky and Carl Orff, and large doses of that incongruous mish-mash of styles we call “Broadway.” All are continually jostling for our attention. It is as much theatre–what we might term “urban guerilla theatre,” complete with a chorus of street people as it is a work of music. In the interest of being provocative it can be vulgar on occasion, but it won’t be ignored. And in this recording, the pace moves with split-second timing as conductor Marin Alsop marshals her assembled forces to make the maximum impact on the listener.

Essentially, Mass challenges people’s shallow concepts of religion. The targets of the sometimes far-from-subtle satire in the texts by Stephen Schwarz and Leonard Bernstein are many, but they generally fall into predictable categories. The naive who take their religion spoon-fed. The worldly jaded for whom “life is easy when you’re half alive.” The cynics who confess their sins, then “go out and do it one more time.” The incurably hip who are too proud to accept the simplicity of a God who loves all simple things because He is the simplest of all. Yes, there is a more or less self-consciously righteous streak in all of this. And yes, Bernstein’s work is steeped in the social ferment of the time in which he wrote it. A time of war protests, freedom marches, and growing popular dissatisfaction with the administration in Washington, be it Johnson or Nixon. So different from the times in which we now live, with our media-fed pap in place of the discussion great issues, disillusion with what appears to be a broken political process, gnawing anxiety over the economy, and war protest that is conspicuous by its non-existence.

What gives Bernstein’s Mass a more enduring appeal is its preoccupation with theological issues that don’t wax and wane with the times. Life hurts. Man experiences separation from God, and needs to feel connected. “Things break all too easily” and need to be fixed. Life hurts. People hurt. People hurt other people. For the Problem of Pain there is no easy solution, so don’t expect this work of music cum theatre to be especially neat or tidy. It makes its impact by shock, conflict, and accumulation. And the sonic ambience of the recording is more typical of pop music and Broadway in its vivid, immediate presence than it is what we normally think of as a choral performance.

And finally, everything you have heard about American baritone Jubilant Sykes is true. His beautiful voice, his timing, his ability to adapt to a variety of modes of expression both as singer and speaker, from quiet, breathless wonder to exultant shouts of joy, all fit in perfectly with his role as The Celebrant, the man who has lost his faith and wants desperately to rediscover it: “I will sing the Lord a new song / I will sing His praises while I live / All of my days.” Since The Celebrant represents us, and since he directs our focus from one section of this sprawling work to the next, it is no mistake to say the performance would not have held together as well as it ds with the expressive, intelligent qualities Sykes brings to it.

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String Quartets (Complete)
Ensō Quartet, with Lucy Shelton, soprano (Quartet 3)


Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) listed three periods in his development as “Objective Nationalism” (1934-1948), “Subjective Nationalism” (1948-1958), and “Neo-Expressionism” (1958-1983). His best known works, the ballets Panambí­ and Estancia, are from the first period, in which he consciously used the folk music of his own country as inspiration. Considering that fact, and since the musical world is still coming to grips with the original and exciting ways in which he combined what he’d learned in Period 1 with modernist trends such as serialism, microtones, and polytonality, it is good that each of the three string quartets we hear on this disc represents the height of each of Ginastera’s periods. That these performances by the U.S.-based Ensō Quartet are nothing less than sensational, pushing the envelop in terms of all a performing quartet can do in terms of ingenious phrasing and rhythmic vitality, is a definite plus.

I was really taken by the athleticism of this performing quartet, consisting of Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; and Richard Belcher, cello. These young artists, who came together in 1999 while students at Yale, do exciting things with Ginastera’s technically intricate writing in Quartet No. 1 (1948), which includes accumulated trills and fascinating interactions between the players. In this rhythmically intense work whoseopening movement is marked Allegro violento ed agitato, the composer was obviously striving to go considerably beyond the simple folkloric level. The outer movements can be violent and frenetic sounding indeed, reminding us of the rough gauchos of Ginastera’s homeland.

Quartet 2 (1958) contrasts the pulsating rhythms of the outer movements with the quiet, anguished moments we find in the second movement, marked Adagio angoscioso, in which the music rises from a barely audible humming to a pronounced climax of great intensity. The middle movement (of five) is marked Presto magico, and brother, is it magic, with contrasted fragments tossed back and forth and with glissandi and pizzicati taken at speed. The fourth movement, marked Libero e rapsodico (free and rhapsodic) involves all four players in virtuosic roles: Violin I states the main theme, followed by a cello cadenza, a solo for Violin II, and then the viola plays the final variation. Agitated rhythms, perpetual motion, syncopations, and explosive outbursts of energy characterize the final movement, marked Furioso, a word that can imply madness as well as propulsion.

Soprano Lucy Shelton joins the Ensō in Quartet 3 (1973), and gives an incredible performance in a work making as severe demands on the vocalist’s art as it does the instrumental. Ginastera set poems by Juan Ramí³n Jiménez, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Rafael Alberti in four of the five movements. They are a rare synthesis of great poetry and great musical settings. La Míºsica (Jiménez) in movement 1 equates the awakening of love in a woman with the image of lilies in a starry firmament, shattering the darkness with a passionate cry of ecstasy. The final section alternates between lines sung normally and lines spoken as if in hushed amazement. The second movement, Fantastico, is a nocturne for the strings only, rising in intensity from a quiet beginning to a passionate chorus. In Movement 3, Amoroso, the music brings out the satire, bitter irony and sexual desire in Belisa’s song from Lorca’s play The Love of Don Perlimplin: “Love, love, / Between my secret thighs, / The sun swims like a fish. / Calid water through the rushes, / Love, / Cock crow and the night is fleeting! / Do not let it go. Oh, no!” In the fourth movement, the setting of Alberti’s Morir al sol (Death in the sun) calls for the singer to veritably shout with grief at the death of the soldier in an open field by the woods, then recreate the howling of a dog in lamentation for his death. Its demands pale, however, in comparison with the ending of the setting of Jiménez poem Ocaso (Twilight) in movement 5 which evokes a mood of sadness on the duality of music and silence, ending with Shelton’s sustained high note on the word eternidad (eternity) in the final line, followed by an even more sensational prolonged note breaking through the stillness of the night. That Ginastera originally wrote the vocal part in this quartet for the great American soprano Benita Valente speaks volumes for the skill required to realize it. That makes the present performance by Shelton all the more impressive.

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Fire & BloodFire and Blood, MotorCity Triptych, Raise the Roof

Ida Kavafian, violin

Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Jí¤rvi, conductor

Naxos Records

The Detroit Symphony released three excellent performances (live recordings, to boot) of orchestral music by Michigan-based composer Michael Daugherty.  Fire and Blood for violin and orchestra was inspired by Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals and throughout the composition Daugherty adeptly integrates Latin-inspired touches into his regular boisterous musical language without sounding cliche or silly.  Ida Kavafian draws every ounce of passion and fire (and blood) out of the music and brings it into the sonic world.  Daugherty’s musical language is, on one hand, very traditional and comfortable but also includes touches and flares of more expressionistic passages that lend much to the drama and tension of his music.  Given the picturesque subject matter I hear a lot of musical connections to, of all pieces, Scheherazade.  Yes, Daugherty’s work is a full-blown violin concerto but the story lines of each movement propel the drama forward in a similar manner as in the Rimsky-Korsakov.  Maybe it is just me.

MotorCity Tryptich is a lighter exploration of Detroit-inspired sources.  In “Motown Mondays,” Daugherty again takes a foreign (to orchestras, anyway) musical language and sets it within the orchestra with flair and panache that goes above and beyond cheesy “pops concert” fodder.  “Pedal-to-the-Metal” takes some obvious Copland references and runs wild and free with them.  “Rosa Parks Boulevard” starts with some dramatic harmonies and morphs into and out of various scenes and landscapes.  The trombone section is heavily featured in this movement and play with a rich, soulful sound.

The timpani concerto/showpiece Raise the Roof is a perfect closer for the disc.  Brian Jones, timpani soloist, is a great force in front of the orchestra but also brings subtlety and nuance to the quieter passages.  The rapid pitch changes of the midpoint cadenza are clean, crisp, and musically done.  The roof gets sufficiently raised, in case you were worried.

Metropolis Symphony Metropolis Symphony, Deus ex Machina

Terrence Wilson, piano

Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Naxos Records

Now it is Nashville’s turn.  Metropolis Symphony was the first piece by Michael Daugherty that I ever heard.  Drawing from Superman mythos, Daugherty creates vibrant and energetic aural pictures of people, places, and events that are vital to the Man of Steel.  Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and Mxyzptlk all show up in almost perfect musical form.  Completed around the time of Superman’s highly publicized death in the early 90s (as opposed to the other deaths of Superman’s, but that is a different story), the piece culminates in the “Red Cape Tango” which mixes tango rhythms with the Dies irae chant.  Each movement is well crafted, expressively performed, and just fun to listen to.  The five movements function as a concerto for orchestra, with each section getting time to shine.  Nashville breathes wonderful life into this character music and is able to give the piece everything it needs to be successful.

Deus ex Machina, for piano and orchestra, takes its inspiration from trains.  “Fast Forward” spins and whirls around with the kind of focused energy you’d expect from a train motif.  The middle movement, “Train of Tears,” is a heartful and sad exploration full of expressive and colorful piano gestures and haunting orchestral solos.  The final movement, as you might expect, is a barn burner that rides along a boogie-woogie style bass line in the piano.  This recording is another instance of a great orchestra playing well, recording it in concert, and getting it out for others to enjoy.

I know some who poo-poo Michael Daugherty’s music as being “gimmicky.”  I disagree completely.  While Daugherty is quite a ways away from “high modernism,” he is extremely capable of writing good tunes with vivid imagery and satisfying dramatic arcs.  I get the sense that his music is a fluid extension of his creative desires.  Nothing sounds forced or strained, instead the music just goes where it needs to go.  If you think that “accessible” is a four-letter word, you probably won’t enjoy these discs.  If you want to hear traditional tone poems written for a modern audience, I can’t think of a better place to start.

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Quartet No. 1 (1952)
Quartet No. 5 (2002)
Quartet No. 6 (2005)
Cypress String Quartet


American composer Benjamin Lees (b.1924) has a recognizable, highly personal style, notable for his formal clarity, his sonorities, his love of sharp contrasts and conflicts, his unexpected lyricism, and the integrity of his writing. As one can tell from a glance at the above dates, Lees has had an unusually long mature period, continuing to write music of remarkable vitality at an age when most composers have experienced a drying of creative juices, diminished stamina, or both.

Quartet No. 1 made its appearance more than fifty years ago, but it already showed Lees’ salient characteristics, as stated above. A very active give and take between two clearly defined themes in the opening movement is followed by a particularly beautiful theme, first stated by the cello and taken up by the other instruments, in the slow movement, an Adagietto, (Winthrop Sargent, writing in the New Yorker, found it to be “one of the most distinguished things of its sort by a contemporary composer that I have heard in some time.”) And so it is, a striking exercise in lyricism at a time when many composers seemed to regard the writing of a melody as something déclassé. The finale, Allegro vivo, is basically a rondo but also involves the statement and development of no fewer than three subjects before a re-statement of the first, and a spirited coda, bring matters to an dramatic, and abrupt, close.

That combination of rondo and sonata form in the finale, together with the fact that I had recently reviewed, with great pleasure, the first installment in a series of Beethoven’s Last Quartets by the Cypress String Quartet, who coincidentally commissioned, and here perform on this disc, Lee’s Quartets 5 and 6, seemed to click on a light for me. I don’t mean to imply the direct influence of Beethoven on Benjamin Lees, but only that the latter-day composer possesses a Beethoven-like sense of clarity and formal integrity, no matter how involved his developments may be. Lees himself admits a taste in painting for the Cubists and Surrealists (significantly, genres in which a strong element of formal design trumps other features – a liquefied pocket watch, a dead pelican – that may be strange or unfamiliar taken by themselves). In Quartet No. 5, written on a commission by the Cypresses for their Call and Response series, he was asked to respond to elements in quartets by Shostakovich and Britten. Lees confesses a liking for the element of surprise in the former, in whose music humor and lacerated nerves can exist in uncomfortably close proximity. And he admires Britten for his refined sense of harmony, his penchant for throwing the listener off-balance by sliding away from a full-blown tonal scale into a harmonic haze.

Although Lees pays his respects to the stated traits in both composers, he is still very much his own man in Quartet 5. A muscular development of three contrasting themes in the opening movement is followed by a slow movment marked “Calm, steady,” in which we have an intimate dialog between the two violins at the top of their registers interrupted briefly by a menacing outburst from the cello, and then resumed (“like two swallows turning over and over in air, arcing and tumbling,” as the Cypress Quartet describe it in their delightful program notes). The scherzo, only 1:46 in duration, requires the quartet members to play as quickly and quietly as possible, ending as softly as a puff of smoke. (They modestly omit to mention how difficult this all is to execute. Again, Shostakovich!) The finale is explosive and sharply accented as all four instruments take turns tussling with the main subject.

Quartet 6, commissioned by the Cypress Quartet in 2005, again reveals the composer’s distinctive “fingerprint.” The opening movement, marked “Measured, dolorous,” is also darkly agitated, with a lyrical subject that seems to emerge without preparation (Lees is never one to waste time making a statement). Quieter episodes alternate with more intense ones, and the movement ends forcefully. The slow movement is marked “Calm, steady,” and so it is at its very opening. Then the development of a subject first stated by the cello is interrupted by a sharply accented episode, a whimsical second subject, and then the calm, sustained chords of the opening. The scherzo, marked “Quiet, eerie,” features both pianissimo and fortissimo passages, ending in a triple pianissimo played pizzicato by all four players – all this in only 2:30! The finale is marked “Unhurried,” but again that applies only to its opening and gives no indication of the succession of surprises Lees has in store for us: a sudden outburst, a burlesca, fast call and response exchanges between players, and a gathering momentum leading to a final climax, to be taken “as fast as possible.”

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Red Silk Dance (1999)
Tibetan Swing (2002)
The Phoenix (2004)
H’un (Lacerations) In Memoriam: 1966-1976 (1988)
Shana Blake Hill, soprano; Bright Sheng, piano
Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz


The scintillating performance by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz, a longtime champion of contemporary music, of four works by Bright Sheng (b. Shanghai, 1955) show clearly why this composer is a great favorite among present-day musicians. He has a penchant for treating traditional instruments of the orchestra in non-traditional ways that today’s generation of young musicians find stimulating and challenging. And his rhythmic vocabulary will keep everyone (the audience included) on their toes.

Red Silk Dance is a good introduction to Sheng’s heady exploration of inter-cultural connections. We envision a caravan slowly wending along the Silk Road that was the ancient link between East and West. A percussion duet between piano and timpani recalls the sound of male Tibetan dancers stamping their feet. Sheng has the performers use hard wooden mallets for the drums, contrasted to accented parallel octaves in the piano, played by Sheng himself as a percussive instrument. A slow interlude has the pianist playing a central Asian flute-inspired melody against a backdrop of muted strings. The only melodious music in the piece, it is interrupted by a miasma of blaring brass. The piano responds with angular leaps and more percussive sounds, culminating in sweeping glissandi.

The title Tibetan Swing refers not to swingtime rhythm, much less an evocation of a pretty girl in a swing, but to the dances of Tibetan women in flowing costumes with long sleeves that brush the ground and swing into the air, accentuating the dance with their swirling patterns of motion. Sheng, a percussionist himself, gives a major role to the sounds of congas, bongos and a bass drum struck with the hand alone. The power of the music increases as more families of the full orchestra become engaged. The composer calls for flutter-tonguing in the brass to add excitement. At the climax, sensational glissandi in the trombones evoke the awesome tones of Tibetan temple horns. The string reintroduce the basic dance motif, and the music swells to a sweeping close.

The Phoenix, for soprano and orchestra, recounts the legend of the fabulous bird that rises from its own ashes. Sheng uses the version in the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which he had first encountered in Chinese translation as a child. The work was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony to celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 2004, the year that also marked the 200th birthday of the beloved Danish writer. Sheng chose his story well.

Taking his cue from the suggestion given by Andersen himself, he sees the legend of the Phoenix as a metaphor for the ever-renewing power of music itself to lift up and inspire people in all places and all times. The emotionally charged vocal part is one of the most challenging in the soprano’s repertoire, with its great leaps and chromatic writing. Shana Blake Hill handles her part with composure and assurance, qualities that are especially important given the large sweep and luminous phrasing required by such key words as “bloomed,” “resplendent,” “arise,” “perfume,” and “soar.” Several places in the text provide for instrumental interludes. A reference to the bright eyes of a Hindu girl invites a sitar-like melody accompanied by a string drone. Likewise, Arabia, birthplace of the Phoenix, is conjured up by an octatonic scale and flowing melismas in the woodwinds.

Like Shostakovich, Bright Sheng has been influenced by the tragic events of his time. For the Russian, it was the Stalinist era, in particular the purge trials and the siege of Leningrad, that brought forth stirring musical responses. For Sheng, it was the “Cultural Revolution” in China, a time of upheavals that became seared in the consciousness of the Chinese. “I was one of the millions who were the witnesses, victims, and survivors,” writes Sheng. The title H’un (Lacerations) is a Chinese word with many meanings (wounds, scars, marks, vestiges), all of which are relevant here. Consciously rejecting melodies that he considered “too beautiful” for the context, Sheng based much of his music on the small, dissonant interval of a half-step. The music is often angry, malevolent, expressing both rage and (in a striking passage in which the upper and lower strings play fortissimo at the extreme limits of their range, but muted) the stifling of dissent like a strangled cry.

All but unnoticed amid the dissonance, a brief scrap of melody in the clarinet, amounting to a full step, offers a ray of hope for solace and redemption through music. Composed in 1988 (shortly after Bright Sheng became an American citizen), H’un looks both backward and forward.

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Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra


Recordings of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony tend to fall into two categories: the bad ones strike the listener as being a full quarter of an hour too long, the good ones as being only 5 to 10 minutes too long. Vasily Petrenko’s account with the Royal Liverpool PO is of the latter persuasion. Actually, the longeurs in this work proceed naturally from Shostakovich’s thematic material and the procedures through which he develops it. (You see, composers can’t just hit us with a smart melody right off the bat and then run with it. They feel guilty if they do.) Seriously, the Eleventh Symphony, dealing more thematically than program-wise with the events that touched off the 1905 Revolution in Russia, needs some space to develop its ideas and build its climaxes. Petrenko, one of the finest young conductors to come of Russia in recent years, gives it just the right amount of breathing room.

The touchstone is the opening movement, “The Palace Square.” The music incorporates several Russian folk songs, “The Convict,” “Listen,” and “O Tsar, Our Little Father.” The first two are combined and heard in the flutes above ominous triplets in the timpani, the latter in unison low woodwinds. All these are set against a low, glacial, almost static theme that is heard at the beginning and end of the movement and then again, very forcefully, in the second. It connotes more than simply the wintry weather; it is the cold insensitivity of autocrats everywhere (in this instance, Tsar Nicholas ll) to the needs of their people. It moves at glacial speed, too. Most of this opening movement is taken at a level that seldom rises above pianissimo and is given to a buildup of tensions that it is not the composer’s purpose to resolve just yet. If the conductor has kept his listener’s attention up to this point (and Petrenko has been quite careful to do just that), then he has passed the Eleventh’s most formidable challenge.

The succeeding movements are all taken attaca, without breaks, a procedure that stresses the overall trajectory of context-event-aftermath-conclusion. The second movement, “The Ninth of January,” vividly dramatizes the incident in which the Tsar’s guards ruthlessly murdered several hundred peaceful demonstrators in the square before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (an event we have seen portrayed in cinema a number of times, including David Lean’s 1962 classic Doctor Zhivago). It opens with subdued but restless activity in the strings, a sure sign that something is about to happen. The climax builds in intensity through several stages with a fugato in between and then we hear the pounding of the side drum as a prelude to the actual slaughter. At the height of the frenzy, the glacial theme from the first movement is blared forth in unison by the whole orchestra. The meaning could not be clearer. The rest of the movement is devoted to the fateful aftermath. First we hear an eerie, spectral recounting of the glacial theme, then the gradual building of anger, understated at first but inexorable, that culminated in the 1905 Revolution.

In Movement 3, “Eternal Memory,” Petrenko does a superior job marshaling the large forces that Shostakovich requires for this symphony, including triple woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, a full percussion battery, celesta and strings. These forces are used sparingly, but to maximum effect. The melody of the revolutionary song “We fell as martyrs” is used here in a striking context, first heard in the violas and then transferred to the other strings. The mood ranges from funereal to strongly assertive and defiant. The intensity subsides, the viola melody is heard as a distant recessional, and then Movement 4, “The Tocsin,” begins. The reference is to the alarm bell in the coda that summons us to be eternally vigilant against oppression and the soul-corroding influence of tyranny. The rapid build-up incorporates themes from the earlier movements, leading to an aggressive transformation of that glacial theme that we know all-too well by now. The movement adds other themes, eventually reaching its climax with a melody in the English horn (cor d’anglais) that places everything we have heard up until now in a fine perspective. Then the coda.

Throughout the performance, Vasily Petrenko has expertly guided the orchestra through a work characterized by slow, quiet build-ups to moments of anarchic frenzy. The dynamic range of this work is enormous. It has the emotional vocabulary of film music (an activity in which Shostakovich was also distinguished) and a uniquely Russian character that was probably what the composer meant when he described it as his most “Mussorgskyan” symphony. (Significantly, he had recently completed his magnificently re-orchestrated performance version of the older composer’s opera Boris Godunov when he began work on the Eleventh Symphony). At a running time of 57:37, Petrenko’s comparatively tauter performance comes in almost eleven minutes shorter than my treasured Delos recording by James DePreist and the Helsinki PO (68:17). And he keeps our rapt attention to the end. What more could we ask?

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 Philippe Quint, violin; Carlos Miguel Prieto conductor


Russian-born American violinist Philippe Quint, with the smooth, transparent sound of the Orquesta Sinfí³nica de Mineria of Mexico under Carlos Miguel Prieto as a backdrop, gives a truly memorable performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 (1945). I am in complete agreement with David Hurwitz of ClassicsToday that this work has suffered too often from kitschy, “sticky” performances, as if the perpetrators were unable to tear themselves away from Korngold’s image as a “movie composer.” That makes the present offering all the more welcome. To be sure, Korngold did use themes from his film scores for Another Dawn (the sublimely beautiful melody with which the soloist opens the work, later restated by the orchestra), Juarez, Anthony Adverse, and The Prince and the Pauper. But make no mistake, this work is no mere pastiche. On the contrary, one is struck immediately by the smoothness and economy with which Korngold integrates his material.

In the Concerto, Quint moves from one enchanting moment to the next with seamless artistry, avoiding mere slickness (no small achievement) as he invests the music with just the right degree of urgency and passion. The lightness of his passagework and the deceptive ease with which he accommodates plucked notes and multiple stopping within the melodic line call for special commendation. So does the interplay between soloist and orchestra. This is a concerto in which the orchestra plays with, and in support of, the soloist, rather than assuming an adversarial role such as we find, for instance, in the Beethoven concerto. The balance between forces in this performance is ideal. Take the way in which the brass are integrated into the texture of the eloquent theme of the slow movement, an Andante titled Romance, rather than punctuating it in the usual way that brass are employed. This is orchestral writing of a higher order, and Quint and Prieto are attuned to its subtleties.

There follows Overture to a Drama, Op. 4 (1911), an astonishingly mature work considering the fact that Korngold was only 14 at the time. An ominous theme, heard early on in wind and strings, builds to a fervent climax, to be succeeded by a languorous middle section with a poetically beautiful melody for the clarinet before things build once more to a decisive conclusion. (Annotator Richard Whitehouse discounts the story that the youthful composer was inspired by reading Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, favoring instead a more abstract approach to the music. I’m not sure he is right. Like another another famous child prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn, Korngold had a life-long love of Shakespeare. this particular play, considered one of the Bard’s “Bitter Comedies,” has disturbing elements that find parallels in the music we hear in this overture.)

The Much Ado about Nothing Concert Suite (again, Shakespeare) concludes the program in fine style. The lively Overture is followed by charm allied with a tinge of regret in “Maiden in the Bridal Chamber.” In “Dogberry and Verges,” a resolute march that keeps sliding off the meter, paints a deft portrait of those drink-sodden constables. “Intermezzo: Garden Scene,” with a cello melody to die for, is followed by a robust and witty Hornpipe (subtitled Mummenschanz, Mummers’ Play), ending matters on a high note.

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Abraham Lincoln Portraits

Nashville Symphony; Leonard Slatkin

Naxos  8.589373-74

Lincoln Portraits

Abraham Lincoln looms monolithically large in America’s cultural lexicon.    Abraham Lincoln Portraits,  a double disc set on the Naxos imprint, collects a number of the musical responses to Lincoln’s legacy. The biggies are here; the Nashville Symphony and Chorus make a terrific gale of sound on the oddly eloquent cacophony of Charles Ives’s  Lincoln the Great Commoner.  Narrator Barry Scott is suitably sepulchral, poised amid the orchestral swells of Aaron Copland’s  Lincoln Portrait.

Lesser known works are also featured. Scott again is an able speaker on Vincent Persichetti’s  A Lincoln Address.  The Persichetti is no match for the Copland in terms of overt appeal, but it features stirring interludes dense with flurried counterpoint and artfully crafted extended tonal harmonies. Using excerpts from Lincoln’s second inaugural address as its text, it contains a considerably poignant narrative. Ironically, Lincoln’s words also proved to be a controversial part of the work’s performance history. Written in 1973,  A Lincoln Address  was commissioned for Nixon’s second inaugural. The event’s planning committee ultimately rejected the work, supposedly for excerpting remarks by Lincoln that could be interpreted as bolstering the antiwar movement’s protests over US actions in Vietnam!

Written in 1941, Morton Gould’s  Lincoln Legend  is an excellent example of the midcentury Americana style, interweaving Civil War-era tunes into an effusive, flashily orchestrated medley.  Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,  by Roy Harris, is a supple, subtle chamber work that receives a lustrous, detailed reading from mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry, violinist Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, cellist Anthony LaMarchina, and pianist Roger Wiesmeyer.  It combines the muscularity of Harris’s symphonic music with a more intimate, Impressionist harmonic palette.

Ernst Bacon’s serviceable, quasi-programmatic  Ford’s Theatre – A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865  is a group of seven, cinema-worthy vignettes dealing with the circumstances surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. George Frederick McKay’s  To a Liberator: a Lincoln Tribute  smacks of scene-setting as well. More meditative in tone, it includes lush choral writing. But of the rarities uncovered on this well-curated compilation, most impressive is Paul Turok’s  Variations on an American Song; Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty.  Many know Turok from his long career as a writer about music for a host of publications. While conservative in style,  Variations  is a charming piece in a pandiatonic style, well-scored and cleverly paced. Idiomatic in its demands, the work is a fine showcase for professionals; but it would brighten up many a college or community orchestra concert as well.

Nashville and Naxos have once again proved fine advocates for American classical music, providing a thematically unified, but eminently entertaining, sampling of Twentieth Century repertoire.

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