Archive for the “Piano” Category
Here and There
Music for Piano and Electronics
Brian Belet / Jim Fox /
Jeff Herriott / Tom Lopez /
Ed Martin / Phillip Schroeder
Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano
Innova Recordings has assembled the work of six composers in this CD of music for piano and electronics, performed by Canadian pianist Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi. Released in early 2013, this album contains works written between 2006 to 2012 and combines the fine playing of Ms. Astolfi with varied atmospheric electronic and processed sounds.
Crystal Springs (2011) by Philip Schroeder is the first track on this CD and is inspired by the Arkansas landscape of brooks, streams and mysterious caves. This piece begins with booming bass chords that are created from electronically manipulated bass, cymbal and sounds from the inside of the piano. These are combined with piano trills in the middle and solitary notes in the upper registers. This effectively conjures a running, liquid feel combined with the deep darkness of an underground cavern, as if we are following a subterranean stream.
The piece is constructed in three parts and with each part the mysterious dark sounds in the lower registers increase and the watery sounds are reduced. The second section has a more animated and less of a flowing feel and is dominated more by the bass chords – as if we are traveling deeper and the water is splashing downwards. By the third section we hear long bass tones accompanied by slow, languid chords, then single notes sounding in the middle registers – a feeling of going deeper still. The low tones are more comforting now and by the conclusion of the piece there is the sense of arriving at a distant, unexplored place filled with a quiet serenity. The electronic processed sounds and the skillful playing of Ms. Astolfi combine here to produce just the right balance of mystery and beauty.
The second track is Swirling Sky (2011) by Ed Martin who describes this piece as inspired by “…peaceful moments spent lying in the grass, gazing at cloud formations drifting above.” This music contains a series of mystical, swirling sounds powered by light arpeggios in the upper registers combined with a sense of majesty in the lower chords. At 4:30 the feeling turns dark and powerful, like a storm approaching full of rain and thunder. Electronic effects provide a sense of rushing wind as the piece slowly winds down to a gentle finish. Swirling Sky was composed for Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi whose sense of imagination adds to this already imaginative work.
Track three is green is passing (1999, rev. 2006) by Jeff Herriott. Jeff explains that “The initial version… opened with pulseless material that would become typical of my later work. In 2006, when I reworked the piece for a performance by pianist-composer Dante Boon, I retained this opening structure but changed the piece’s development to better suit my evolved musical style.” The opening is indeed simple and spare, consisting of soft passages with just a few notes. It proceeds in a slow and stately manner, like a person speaking quietly with well-chosen words. There are pauses between the short phrases, allowing the notes to reverberate, and this evokes a sense of suspense and questioning. At other times there is a definite feeling of warmness – turning almost wistful and nostalgic. The piece ends with a long sustained note that seems to melt into the air. Ms. Astolfi’s playing provides the delicate and sensitive touch critical to this quiet piece.
The fourth track is by Brian Belet, titled Summer Phantoms: Nocturne (2011) and this completely lives up to its name. The piece opens with deep, scary sounds, like the throwing of a knife in the dark or a large blade cutting through the air. Piano notes, often dissonant, add to the tenseness. The electronics here are particularly effective and atmospheric. Brian explains: “The fixed media part is made up of piano sounds (string scrapes, hand-dampened tones, soundboard strikes and isolated tones) that I processed through Spectral Analysis, Sum of Sines, Time Alignment Utility and additional stochastic algorithms…” For all of that, the effects are genuinely chilling and not artificial or overly analytical. The piano weaves its line skillfully in and out between the electronics and the balance between the two sustains the tension. This piece convincingly portrays things that go bump in the night, and could well be the sound track for a horror movie.
Track 5 is Confetti Variations (2012) for piano and fixed media by Tom Lopez. According to the liner notes by the composer, this piece “…entailed shredding Brahms and Feldman piano music into brightly colored fragments, firing the sparkly bits into the air, and listening to them rain down on field recordings.” Accordingly, the piece starts out with a rousing segment of Brahms accompanied by the sounds of a fuse lit and burning – followed by explosions. More loud Brahms follows and a spectacular fireworks display is heard overhead. This gives way to distant thunder and rapid piano playing alternating with soft wind sounds and a quiet Feldmanesque piano section. Now a downpour is heard and the piano jumps from rapid, loud playing to quiet simple chords. The sounds of booming surf follow with gentle piano passages alternating with energetic Brahms. The plunk of a rock thrown into a stream is heard and the water seems to be moving more slowly now. Soon we are in a full-blown rain forest complete with sounds of birds and the croaking of frogs. This tranquil setting is leisurely accompanied by the piano and the buzzing of bees. The occasional piano notes and a few simple chords bring us to a quiet ending. The piano playing by Ms. Astolfi here is impressive as she switches seamlessly between the two styles – Brahms and Morton Feldman being two of her favorites. The field recordings are of a convincing and vivid fidelity. This track is an imaginative mix and demonstrates the creative possibilities of piano music combined with field recordings.
The final track is titled The pleasure of being lost (2012) by Jim Fox and is also for piano and fixed media. This piece was written for Jeri-Mae Astolfi and includes the speaking voice of Janyce Collins. The voice is distinct and is accompanied throughout by electronically processed sounds suggesting a steady roar of the wind.. The piano is heard as solitary notes and chords between long pauses, lending a lost – but not tense – feeling. The words are spoken in a flat, perfunctory tone and this provides a sense of reassurance. The text is from the 1854 journal of Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of Charles Darwin and an early explorer of the Himalayas. The words are partly an objective account of the remote surroundings in which he must have found himself and partly the stray thoughts of a wanderer. While this is certainly a solitary account, there is no sense of loneliness or fear. The piano provides a commentary on this discourse, sometimes building a bit of tension, sometimes turning introspective and nostalgic. The combination of voice, electronics and the spare piano passages are in just the right combination for building a convincing portrait of the seemingly contradictory states of pleasure and being lost.
This CD, as well as its separate tracks and links to the composers are available from Innova Recordings.
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Kimberly Cole Luevano (Clarinet), Midori Koga (Piano), Lindsay Kesselman (Soprano)
Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano
Fleur De Son
Fleur De Son’s recently released “Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano” is an album that does right by new music in this country. It champions important composers who currently enjoy a range of notoriety through amazingly performed works that are strong and indicative of contemporary styles without sacrificing their reverence for tradition. There are two offerings by current big-namers Joan Tower and Libby Larsen and two more by accomplished and ascending Roshanne Etezady and Abbie Betinis whose path to dominance in new music’s near future will only be eased by their triumphant representation on this CD.
Of course, at the heart of any recording’s success or faaiure is the tremendous quality of its performers, and “Bright Angel” features three of today’s most fabulously gifted interpreters of contemporary music. Clarinetist Kimberly Cole Luevano and pianist Midori Koga appear throughout the disc, and Soprano Lindsay Kesselman joins them for Ms. Betinis’ song cycle Nattsanger. Their performances are exquisite as is their ensemble chemistry, which is demonstrated in moments like the opening of Ms. Etezady’s Bright Angel, when Ms. Luevano draws her sound out of a high, quartal or quintal harmony in the piano, or in the last movement of Nattsanger, when Ms. Kesselman’s scream of madness emerges from a high, screeching clarinet line.
As I alluded before, the pieces on “Bright Angel” are fairly centrist in their style, that is, they are certainly not aesthetically anachronistic, but are also not highly experimental or aggressive. Frankly, every work is extremely appealing, and represents the kind of music I wish could more frequently act as an ambassador of contemporary music to broad audiences. For example, Roshanne Etezady’s Bright Angel (which receives its recording world premiere on this CD) opens the album with warm lyricism and enthralling moments of virtuosity. Inspired by the architectural drawings of nineteenth century American architect Mary Jane Colter, Bright Angel possesses clear musical images of the West, which are conveyed clearly and thoughtfully through the grand tenderness of Ms. Etezady’s musical language.
Next up is Abbie Betinis’ Nattsanger (also a world premiere recording), which is a dramatic yet approachable song cycle on Norwegian texts depicting various stages of the night. Nattsanger presents dark, beautiful music that is skillfully orchestrated, namely in the way the clarinet and soprano play off each other’s similar colors and range. The performers are used conventionally with the exception of the fourth and eighth movements, where the texts’ underlying surrealism is most apparent. Here we find the clarinet and soprano used by themselves in a nervous duet (the fourth movement), and the aforementioned scream, which essentially ends the piece (the eighth movement). These are anchors of extremity, both in terms of the music’s expressive force, but also in the work’s symmetrical structure.
Joan Tower’s Fantasy (…those harbor lights) and Libby Larsen’s Licorice Stick further underscore the skill and craft of the composers and performers featured on “Bright Angel”. Fantasy is appropriately impulsive in character and mysterious in its expression. The prominence of the clarinet and piano’s roles are constantly shifting as they trade off prominence and, at times, share it – particularly when the musical explodes with energy about a third of the way through, rollicking through winding scales and arpeggios for most of the remaining music. Licorice Stick is less expansive an endeavor as Fantasy but nonetheless powerful. The most extensively aggressive work on the disc, Licorice Stick shows off the clarinet’s flare for bombast by drawing on its heritage as a jazz instrument (I’m about 90% sure there’s a Rhapsody In Blue quote) with pitch bends, trills and screaming altissimo lines. Throughout the shredding clarinet solos, the piano punches through with driving bass lines that make the piece stagger along the way to its loud, stumbling conclusion.
“Bright Angel” is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and from Fleur De Son’s website.
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John Luther Adams
Four Thousand Holes
Scott Deal, Percussionist;
Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist
Cold Blue CD CB0035
Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist
Mode CD Mode 240
Alaskan (by way of New York) composer John Luther Adams was long known as the “other Adams” of contemporary concert music, overshadowed by Californian (by way of Massachusetts) John Coolidge Adams, composer of the operas Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic and the Pulitzer prizewinning On the Transmigration of Souls. The balance of recognition seems to be shifting, as the Alaskan Adams has created several large scale works that have raised his public profile, such as the spatial percussion piece Inuksuit and museum installation (with an accompanying book) The Place Where You Go to Listen. Adams frequently speaks of “creating ecologies of music.” Both of the aforementioned pieces are based on aspects of Alaska: the former the traditional music of its native inhabitants and the latter shifts in the region’s weather patterns and tectonics (with an implicit demonstration of the impact of climate change on its environs).
Boston’s Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort, whom he directs, are staunch advocates of JL Adams. Two recent recordings present different aspects of his music-making, as well as still more contrasting facets of his adopted state. The tintinnabulation of percussionist Scott Deal’s vibraphone and chimes, Drury’s piano (which plays major and minor chords throughout), and a haloing electronic aura courtesy of the composer mimic the shifts in light and many crags found in a wilderness’ varied terrain. Within the half hour duration, Adams never allows this limited palette to grow stale; he continually refreshes the sound world with shifts of tonality and varied interactions between percussion and piano. Its companion piece …And Bells Remembered… takes the tintinnabulation still further. Alongside Drury, five percussionists use both mallets and bows to craft a slowly evolving tolling of bell sounds both high and low. Is it meant as a memento mori or as a secularized ritual or meditation? We aren’t told in the booklet’s aphoristic notes, but we are left with an incandescent sonic shimmering that again indicates a sweeping vista to the mind’s eye.
Many composers have incorporated birdsong into their music. Perhaps the most famous of these is the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), who was an amateur ornithologist and travelled the world to collect birdsongs; they appear in most of his compositions. Even Messiaen’s transcriptions of these arias of the animal world are somewhat limited by Western ideas of notation: they occur at a precise moment in the piece that is studiously indicated as a conventional (if complicated) rhythm. Adams has taken the incorporation of birdsong materials further in conception. Rather than prescribing when they are to occur, he gives the musicians phrases (transcribed in the field) as well as detailed indications of the habits and movement patterns of the various species which sing them. Thus, the musicians are tasked with accommodating their playing to approximate the birds’ preferences and the space in which they reside; not the other way around. Thus, creating an ecology of music involves much more than what’s printed on the page: it requires empathy, study, and imagination. While Messiaen is to be commended for paving the way towards this aim, songbirdsongs dispenses, insofar as is possible, with human expectations of formal trajectory and “pretty Polly” mimicry, instead replacing it with something wild, unfettered, and, in the performance captured hear, often enthralling.
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Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.
Eve Egoyan, Piano
Works by Ann Southam
Centrediscs CMCCD 17211
As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.
My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.
Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)
The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.
The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.
The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.
That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.
The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.
This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”
I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.
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featuring Marilyn Nonken, piano
New Focus CD FCR 116
Composer Drew Baker’s music is demanding stuff. Highly conceptual, viscerally physical, and often politically charged, it requires much from its performers. Baker is fortunate to have a staunch advocate in pianist Marilyn Nonken. She has championed his music, commissioning works and programming them frequently on her recitals. This New Focus disc demonstrates just how much she has internalized music that would fell many a less formidable artist.
Take the title work, which is named after the “vigorous interrogating techniques” that, during the past decade, proved to be one of many regrettable blights on the United States’ human rights record. The piece requires Nonken to have her arms extended to both registral extremes throughout, gradually stretching her hands to navigate wider intervals and thicker chords. Sensory assault – increasingly piercing amplification – and, live at least, sensory deprivation (the work ends with the lights out, imitating a detainee being blindfolded) are also part of the package. It’s an unnerving, deeply troubling piece about an equally squirm inducing topic. The most amazing thing to me about all this – Nonken asked for this piece: she’s a plucky pianist! Asa Nisi Masa, another amplified work, features fists full of dense low register clusters, delivered in a battery of cannonades.
But, thankfully, Baker isn’t merely indulging a streak of danger music throughout the disc. National Anthem, another piece commissioned by Nonken, is a far more delicate affair. Yet it’s just as politically motivated as Stress Position. The Star-Spangled Banner is deconstructed, played in three different keys, in a slowly moving overlapping canon. What might seem like an Ivesian conceit is deployed in a more Feldmanesque fashion, to agreeable effect. Also quite appealing is Gray, another slowly developing piece featuring angular linear counterpoint and gently articulated yet dissonant harmonies, delicately shaded with careful attention to pedaling indications and keen awareness of the decay rates of various resonances. It’s played quite beautifully in this detailed performance by Nonken; she inhabits it with graceful poise.
Baker and percussionists Sean Connors and Peter Martin join Nonken for Gaeta, a work for two pianos and water percussion. I heard this piece’s premiere at the Guggenheim’s Works and Process Series back in 2006 and found it to be quite impressive. One was awash in a plethora of water sounds, hand percussion, and prepared piano in a soundscape that was abundantly varied yet never overly busy. While Gaeta thrives in a live acoustic, the New Focus disc has done much to capture its shimmering sonic magic.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Piano, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Ensemble CMN, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Laganella, Marilyn Nonken, Prism Quartet, saxophone
The Calls of Gravity
music of David Laganella
The Prism Quartet, Marilyn Nonken, Ensemble CMN
New Focus Recordings
- Leafless Trees – The Prism Quartet
- The Hidden River – Marilyn Nonken
- Unattainable Spaces – Ensemble CMN
- The Persistence of Light – Marilyn Nonken
- Sundarananda – Ensemble CMN
These recent works by composer David Laganella feature a constant nattering of activity full of motion and gestures and with very little stability or repose. Leafless Trees is an energetic and coloristic set of miniature toccatas for saxophone quartet. The Prism Quartet are clearly at home here as they make the acrobatics and difficult timbral shifts sound fluid and organic. The quartet is a showy virtuosic piece and I found that I wanted to listen to the individual sound worlds of each movement for a greater amount of time that Laganella had composed.
Marilyn Nonken’s two performances (The Hidden River and The Persistence of Light) features almost constant activity and flow as is fitting to the compositions’ inspirations. Both pieces function with their own internal logic through a linear form that eschews repetition for constant development. These pieces are based on textures instead of gestures with broad dramatic shapes to guide the listener. Harmonies are dense clusters which occasionally relax into softer sounds. As a whole, Laganella uses the piano as a single voice with very little use of large-scale polyphony. The smaller gestures that make up the whole composition are again appropriate given his inspirations of water and light.
Unattainable Spaces stays true to the sound world that Laganella has presented thus far. Tight dissonances are the glue that bind this ensemble (string trio, clarinet, and percussion) into a single unified instrument. The language is equally sinewy and slippery as it progresses from one moment to the next. In a refreshing change of pace, the final composition played by Ensemble CMN has smooth edges and a more tender touch. Sundarananda for flute, cello, and guitar, is a compellingly understated piece built of slower moving lyrical lines sometimes punctuated by more hectic activity. The trio waxes and wanes and is full of breath. Short spiky gestures that become the mainstay of Laganella’s later compositions (this work is the earliest on the disc – 2004) are given resonant space. A tight control over the dramatic arch is still maintained. I’m not sure what has happened in the past 7 years to move Laganella’s music into a more hectic and manic direction but I hope he will still draw upon the serene contemplations he had when composing Sundarananda.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Piano, tags: CD Review, Charlemagne Palestine, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Piano, strings, Sub Rosa
(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)
Upon first cracking open this 3-CD collection of Strumming by Charlemagne Palestine, I saw the brief newspaper article by John Rockwell who tells the tale of a Palestine performance cut short because the composer was playing a Steinway and not a Bösendorfer (“cut short” is relative since the piece lasted 2.5 hours instead of 4). The article presents the situation as an acute case of “diva-itis” but when I heard the original version of Strumming (even listed as “for Bösendorfer piano”) and heard the massive clouds of overtones and sympathetic vibrations, I could see why Palestine would not be pleased with a Steinway instrument. So much of the piano version of Strumming doesn’t happen at the keyboard but in the air around it. The incessant keyboard hammerings melts into waves of sound much like dots in a Seurat painting. Around the 17 minute mark of this 52 minute performance from 1974 my brain couldn’t hear the keyboard anymore – just the spectra of the harmonies pushing against each other. The cresting wave around 30 minutes is an absolutely transcendent ride as is the surrender to the “power chords” 7 minutes later. I trust Charlemagne Palestine to deliver what he wants me to hear and this recording is one you can trust. As much as I would love to hear a more recent, higher-resolution, and longer version of the work, I think it is hard to call this performance anything other than definitive. It makes the 12 minute version of Strumming on the Godbear album feel like a 5 Second Film.
In addition to Palestine performing on Bösendorfer, the Sub Rosa collection has two other versions: one for harpsichord performed by Betsy Freeman in 1977 and one for a string ensemble organized at the SF Conservatory by John Adams in that same year. The harpsichord version weighs in at 35 minutes and is probably the closest to providing an actual “strum” aesthetic although without the pronounced melting of sustained sonic spectra. Freeman’s technique and treatment of the material is compelling and well paced. Some folks might approach a harpsichord version of Strumming with extreme distaste but there is no reason to avoid this wonderful performance.
I found the string ensemble version (about 25 minutes long) to be surprisingly sustained whereas the keyboards furiously chug away. There is nary a tremolo to be heard nor any other picturesque technical tricks that one would expect from string ensemble writing. The harmonic journey is laid bare and exposed in a frail and naked manner. It is this string version that I really hope gets taken up and revisited in a longer and higher quality recording (at least one without coughing). As a minor quibble, I’m not sure why this is sold as a 3 disc set since the harpsichord and string versions could comfortably fit on a single disc. True, there are few of us who will spin all versions back-to-back-to-back, but I always bristle when I have a disc with so much dead space by a composer known for extended compositions.
While these recordings are supposedly of the same piece of music, each of these versions contains a different element of “truth” to them. Each stands squarely on its own as a performance of a hypnotic and unique compositional voice instead of sounding as mere arrangements of the original piano version. These three recordings are interconnected the same way that good film/book pairings (2001, Blade Runner) contain the core of the work while still showcasing different distinct artistic visions.
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IVES: Songs. Various Artists. Volume 1: “123” through “Cradle Song”. Naxos 8.559269. 75 minutes. Volume 2: “December” through “Gruss”. Naxos 8.559270. 68 minutes. Volume 3: “Harpalus” through “Luck and Work”. Naxos 8.559271. 76 minutes. Volume 4: “Majority” through “Over the Treetops”. Naxos 8.559272. 73 minutes. Volume 5: “Paracelsus” through “Swimmers”. Naxos 8.559273. 80 minutes. Volume 6: “Tarrant Moss” through “Yellow Leaves”. Naxos 8.559274. 66 minutes.
Charles Ives completed nearly 200 songs between 1887 and 1926, spanning the entirety of his composing life. All of his aesthetic, musical, poetic, philosophical, and political concerns are addressed, one way or another, in one style or another. All of the completed songs are included in Naxos’ six volumes, which are organized according to song titles, in alphabetical order. This arrangement seems extremely counter-intuitive, but it turns out to be really inspired, as it allows a listener to get a picture of the range of Ives’ work in the form, without having to purchase the entire set.
Like every collection of this size and this variety, every listener will have favorites and every listener will find revelations. Many of the songs are well-known, such as “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” (Volume 2, David Pittsinger, bass, and Douglas Dickson, piano), “Majority” (Volume 4, Robert Gardner, baritone, and Eric Trudel, piano), “The Cage” (Volume 1, Gardner and J. J. Penna, piano) and “The Greatest Man” (Michael Cavalieri, baritone, and Dickson).
An example of a revelation is “Ich Grolle Nacht” (Volume 3, Gardner and Penna). This is an early (1898) song on a text by Heinrich Heine. This song and others from the same time frame show a fully mature composer with a solid grasp on the late Romantic style of the day. The touching lyricism that characterizes this song emerges throughout Ives’ career, as in the deconstruction of the hymn “At the River” (Volume 1, Sara Jakubiak, soprano, and Dickson).
Ives’ stentorian mode comes into play in such political/patriotic songs as “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” (Volume 3, Gardner and Trudel) and “Walt Whitman” (Volume 6, Ryan MacPherson, tenor, and Trudel), which are also portraits of their subjects in the manner of the composer’s “Concord” Sonata. Patriotic fervor also brings out Ives at his most gloriously impractical, as in the 42-second song for voice and three pianos “Vote for Names! Names! Names!” (Volume 6, MacPherson and pianists Laura Garritson, Dickson, and Trudel).
Every disc is replete with the special pleasures of Ives’ art. Hymn-tunes, patriotic songs, and chaos abound. Anyone wishing to stick a toe in this repertoire would do well to get any one of the volumes.
The performances throughout the collection, featuring about two dozen singers, a number of pianists and assorted instrumentalists, are ardent, committed, and expressive, if not quite as polished as those of Susan Narucki and Donald Berman. Naxos’ production is solid, and Richard Whitehouse’s notes are well-written and richly informative.
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IVES: Sonatas 1 and 2 (“Concord”). Jeremy Denk, piano; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute. Think Denk Media 2567. 74 minutes.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the first composer whose music gave a comprehensive sound-picture of life in America. This musical picture is of America during a certain time and in a particular place. This America was the New England of Ives’ youth, and later the New York of his adulthood. The music moves back and forth between overwhelming complexity and childlike simplicity, between grinding, aggressive dissonance and clear, hymnal-like harmony, and between tunes we’ve known all our lives and alien other-worldly abstraction, often with whiplash-inducing speed. It is probably inevitable that this musical embodiment of a diverse, almost contradictory nation is based on such striking dualities.
The most important of the dualities embodied in Ives’ music, though, is that of interior/ideational and exterior/experiential expression. (You could argue that all art is based on this dichotomy, but it is radically at the center of Ives’ aesthetic.) That is, Ives takes his memories and experiences and abstracts them into musical structures, while at the same time he often puts the external experience on the surface of the music in the form of quotations.
In Ives’ music for orchestra and for string quartet, this internal/external dichotomy is a function of community, where the layers of music can be heard as a picture of an event projected through the prism of artistic remembrance. Whether “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean” or “Turkey in the Straw” is heard in the foreground is a matter of perspective when they occur simultaneously in the musical texture.
In a piece for solo piano, it’s different. All of the various strands of music come from the same place, from the same fingers. The expressive tension that results from the external/internal dichotomy in Ives’ music is magnified exponentially. His two piano sonatas are monumental essays on American thought and experience.
Pianist Jeremy Denk is known in the musical blogosphere for his imaginative and informative writing. Reviews of his performances cite a powerful combination of intelligence and imagination in his playing. Given this, it’s not surprising that Denk chose for his debut recording Ives’ two piano sonatas. Throughout both of these pieces, Denk handles the shifts in mood and style, and the contrapuntal complexities of this music with apparent ease.
The First Sonata is a sprawling arch in five movements. Denk projects Ives’ architecture without sacrificing the often playful expressive elements, such as the raucous quotation of “Bringin’ in the Sheaves” near the end of the second movement. Denk’s performance makes a very strong case for this often-neglected work.
The First Sonata is neglected only because the Second Sonata (“Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”) is one of the most influential piano works of the 20th century, as well as one of the touchstones of American concert music. The Concord Sonata is one of Ives’ most difficult works, both in execution (which you would never know from Denk’s performance) and in musical substance, but since that difficulty is part and parcel of what the piece is about, it is immediately approachable as well.
The Concord Sonata’s four movements are character sketches of figures associated with American Transcendentalism—Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. The subject matter is a natural field for Ives’ one-foot-in-the-world-the-other-in-the-stars approach to music. It is clearly natural to Denk as well—this is the best, most convincing account of this work I have ever heard. His technique seems to know no bounds and his ability to shift gears without warning is a tremendous asset here. The violence in passages in both the Emerson and Hawthorne movements is more than matched by the tenderness is the lyrical episodes of “The Alcotts”.
Not surprisingly, Denk’s notes are a lively read, offering clues to what we will hear in the recording, and the sound is excellent. Denk is an extraordinary musician and a fine thinker. I have a list of pieces in my head that would love to hear him take on, but I think I’ll keep it to myself and just see where he goes next.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Piano, tags: Canada, CD Review, cello, chamber music, Jay Batzner, Montreal, Piano, piano trio, strings, violin
5 x 3
- Ana Sokolovic – Portrait parle
- Paul Frehner – Quarks Tropes
- Jean Lesage – Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres
- Analia Llugdar – Tricycle
- Chris Paul Harman – Piano Trio
Julie-Anne Derome, violin; Gabriel Prynn, violoncello; Anna D’Errico, piano
Trio Fibonacci is quite a group. I first heard them on their recording of Jonathan Harvey works a few years back and I am astounded at their ability to program and perform Old Warhorses alongside cutting-edge contemporary music. This recent release, 5 x 3, plays to the trio’s strengths in technique and interpretation providing an end result of excellent music making. All of the composers represented have some connection to the Montreal new music scene but beyond that, the five compositions provide unique experiences. Ana Sokolovic’s Portrait parle, inspired by 19th century French phrenology practices, is reminiscent of the sparkling colors and shifting hazes found in Jonathan Harvey. The trio is made of many small vignettes which are woven together in a compelling and kaleidoscopic narrative. Paul Frehner’s Quarks Tropes is about as different as it could be: long, stoic melodic lines and dark harmonic tones in the first movement and aggressive energies in the second. The more conservative harmonic language is still fresh and inviting as both movements traverse satisfying emotional arcs.
Le projet Mozart, où l’auteur s’interroge sur la complexité du style et le métissage des genres (The Mozart Project, where the author questions himself on the complexity of styles and mixing of genres), other than winning long title competitions, shines a wondrous magnifying lens on the music of Mozart and watches it melt and subsequently catch fire. Jean Lesage treats the Mozart as an elusive figure, slipping in and out of recognizability with remarkable skill. The music could, and does, go anywhere at any time. Analia Llugdar’s Tricycle brings back the coloristic sound world of the Sokolovic trio but with an emphasis on pointalistic moments and slowly developing shapes. Energies ebb and flow throughout the piece but the overall vibe projected is one of almost serene detachment.
The final composition on this disc is Chris Paul Harman’s Piano Trio, set in six brief movements. This composition gives Trio Fibonacci yet another chance to shine since it contains some of the most intricate and quickly orchestrated material on the entire disc. Trio Fibonacci is adept at sounding as a singular unit as well as three separate virtuosi but this Piano Trio gives Trio Fibonacci the presence of 9 people. The overall rough and rugged language (pitch and rhythm) is a great contrast to the delicate works which proceeded it and its closing position on the disc is a good choice. The silky smooth and poignant ending in movements 5 and 6 (attaca) is a surprise (which I’ve ruined for you now but it is still worth hearing).
In general, there is hardly anything left that you should want from this disc. The excellent music, fabulous performances, and great programming have kept this disc in my regular rotation for quite some time.
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